From The Unfallen: “When there’s nothing you can do, do nothing.”

This is from my book, The Unfallen. Click on the link to download the whole book.

That night when Gwen was undressing, she read the card Winnie had given her. It was an M.I.T. business card with Winnie’s home address and phone number written on the front. On the back were two quotations. Gwen read them over and over again and finally she worked up the nerve to call him.

“Are you busy?”

He smiled and she could feel him smiling through the phone, could hear the skin of his face stretching tight in the way his breathing changed. “It’s ten o’clock at night. I’m usually not busy at this hour.”

“Oh. Well. I’ve seen that office of yours, haven’t I? And I’ve had mail from you later than this.”

“I’m not busy, Gwen.”

“Nor am I, alas. Or perhaps thankfully. And so I thought I’d give you a ring.”

He said nothing for an agonizingly long moment and she thought he might say nothing at all. “…Is that what you thought?”

She blew the smallest puff of air out of her nose and bit her lip at the same time. She assumed he could see her as well as she could see him, see her expressions in the small sounds that accompanied them. “Say the truth or say nothing, is that it?”

“No. Yes. No. I’m glad you called. I don’t want to punish you for it.”

“…You’re glad I called?”

“No, I hate it that you called. And I’m delighted to speak to you. And I hate it that I’m delighted. And please don’t hang up.” He laughed and she knew it was despite himself and she laughed with him for another reason.

She said, “I’ve… I’ve missed you.”

Again there was a long silence. “Now you have to speak the truth.”

She bit her lower lip very hard and blinked her eyes very fast. “What if I can’t…?”

She could feel his lips purse, as if his cheek were right next to her own. “Then you have to miss me. When there’s nothing you can do, do nothing. I wrote that on my own bathroom mirror.” He chuckled without the smallest hint of mirth.

It was her turn to be silent and he let her. Finally she said, “I’ve been thinking about Ibsen.”

“Have you?”

“Yes. I was quite taken with him as a girl. I used to imagine what it would be like to live among people who spoke that way, such ordinary words so laden with hidden meanings.”

“Was Hilde your favorite?”

“Hilde was your favorite, I’m sure. I thought more of Hedda in those days. And in making that observation I invite you to infer precisely nothing. And I do not have Granny Penelope’s sidearm, if you were wondering.”

He chuckled, this time an actual laugh.

“But it’s this awful winter that’s got me thinking of Ibsen now. It gets dark so early and I stand at my window and I watch the snow swirling down in the halo of the streetlight, swirling down then vanishing into the blackness. I can see the street and the cars and the houses, but after a while I can’t see anything at all, just snowflakes and the void. And then I feel as if I’m trapped in one of those awful houses overlooking a fjord, trapped forever with the ghosts of my sins and my obsessions…”

He said nothing and she wasn’t entirely surprised.

“You think I’m being melodramatic, don’t you?”

“…I think you’re asking for what you can’t have in a way that’s beneath you.”

She scoffed and for the first time since she’d known him she spoke to him with the finely-honed edge of contempt in her voice. “What can’t I have, Devin Dwyer? Are you saying I can’t have a man?”

“I’m sure you can have almost any man you want.”

“…But not the man I want.” The contempt was gone from her voice, replaced by an unbounded sadness.

He was silent for an endless time and she could hear him breathing and she knew he was fighting back tears, just as she was. “You can’t have anything you want until you dare to want it…”

She said nothing and he knew she was crying and he wanted to comfort her and he knew he couldn’t. He listened to her breathing; no sobs, just the ragged kind of breathing of someone who is trying very hard not to cry.

He said, “What’s that music I hear.”

He could feel her smiling, that brave ‘I’m not crying’ smile. “It’s Mendelssohn. The trios for piano and strings. Comfort for the soul on a winter’s night on the fjords.” Her smiled changed to something more wry and he could feel the change.

He smiled with her. “I’ve been listening to the country station.”

“Country music in Boston?”

“You can find country music in Tokyo. It’s the universal language of pain. On Fridays they really lay it on thick. Cheatin’ songs. Hurtin’ songs. Leavin’ songs. Don’t screw it up, boys. Take that paycheck home. There’s nothing you can have for seven hours that’s worth losing what you’ve had for seven years, so don’t screw it up.”

“Is that what you think you’ve done?” she asked. “Screwed it up?”

She could hear the sadness in his voice before he had said a word. “…That’s what I think you’ve done.”

She was silent for a long, long time, and when she finally spoke there seemed to be no connection to what had gone before. “I love to talk on the telephone. Did you know that? We’ve traded so much email and whispered so many secrets mouth to ear, and I’ve actually felt cheated. There’s so much missing from a telephone call, but so much that’s so tellingly there if you listen for it. It’s as if the world were a fabric, like a tablecloth, and the telephone pinches two spots of the fabric together, so that two people who are tens or thousands of miles apart are precisely and perfectly next to each other. Mouth to ear, close enough to breathe and whisper and sigh. So much is hidden, but so very much more is revealed.”

She could hear him breathing and she could feel him smiling and she knew his green eyes were enflamed. “Gwen, I’ll always love you. You can be hurt if you have to, but don’t ever be jealous. No one could ever replace you in my life…”


“No. It can’t be that way. I don’t believe in loyalty, personal loyalty. If you said that to the people who know me, I’m sure they’d be surprised, because I’m sure I seem to be devoutly loyal to them. But what I’m loyal to is principle, and if I might seem to be faithful to a person, it’s because that’s the means of expressing fidelity to the principle. I won’t say I never betray a principle, because sometimes I do — by mistake. But I never knowingly betray a principle.”

A hint of the contempt crept back into her voice. “No matter how much it hurts.”

She heard the puff of air that came before his smile of acceptance. “In any conflict between bad and worse, bad is as good as it gets.”

“Is having me so very much worse than… not?”

“The words are, ‘I love you’, those words, that order. If I betray my own ego, there’s no ‘I’. Then no ‘love’. And soon enough no ‘you’. You wanted to find love among the nerds and here it is, the calculus of loss, the mathematical language of pain…”

“What if… What if I were to say, ‘I love you’?”

He chuckled. “Is this an auction? Are you placing a bid?”

“Please don’t… Please don’t be cruel.”

“Gwen, I know you love me.”

“You do…?”

“You love me more than anything, like I love you. I’m in you all the time, you’re always talking to me in your head. I’m in you to the bone. I’ll be with you forever. I’ll be with you on the day you die.”

“Then… God, Devin, why?”

“You don’t have to say it. You don’t have to feel it. Well, you do have to feel it. But you have to live it. It can’t be something that you feel and don’t do. ‘Just the one or the other, the action or the vision, could never be enough for me.’ Someone I love said that. I know you love me, Gwen. I know you love me more than any man you’ve ever known or ever will know. But I know you love something else even more…”

She was trapped and she knew it and she knew he knew it and still she spoke sharply. “So my love for you has to be unconditional, is that it?”

He issued the softest of chuckles and she knew it wasn’t derision and she knew it was, the worst sort, the derision of the comically harmless. “I’d hate that. I want to earn everything I get, and I want to earn your love more than anything else. Real love can be endlessly accepting, but how could it be unconditional? There are billions of women on the Earth and you’re the only one I love. I’m the only man you love. Your love can’t be unconditional. But it can’t be expressed in the subjunctive, either.”

“Ouch,” she said. “He pricked me with an arrow from mine own quiver.” She laughed.

“Gwen, I’ve… I’ve missed you, too.”

He could hear her smiling. “Is it the arrows and quivers you’ve missed, then?”

“The prickings and the quiverings, I think.”

“Do you dare intimate that I quiver?”

“I was speaking of myself.”



“Just to see you.”

“No. I can’t just see you. I can’t look at you without touching you. I can’t think of you without wanting you. Is that what you want to hear? But it has to be both, Gwen, just the way you said. The thought and the deed, and either one alone is nothing. Love-making as the expression of love and every loving thought an act of love-making. I love to be inside you, you know that. I love to be enveloped by you. I love to be locked together with you from our heels to our hips to our shoulders to our lips. But that’s just one way I have of making love with you, and not always the best way. I love to cook with you. I love to sit beside you in the car. I love to walk next to you and feel your legs brushing against mine. I love to talk with you, Gwen, I love it right now. I love to think of you, and you’re so much a part of my thoughts that I don’t have any thoughts that you’re not a part of. You’re there with me always, always right beside me in my mind. Do I want to see you? Do I want to make love with you? I want it so much it makes me crazy. I want to kiss you until I can’t breathe. I want to touch your skin and I want never to stop touching your skin…”

She was crying and he knew she was crying and he knew if he was with her he’d hold her and then they would make love. And he would love her. And he would hate himself.

“It has to be both,” he said. “The action is the idea and the idea is the action. Without that, there’s nothing. I want both. I want everything…”

“…And what if you can’t have everything?”

She could hear the phone shift against his head and she knew he had shrugged. “You know the answer… It’s funny, I guess. This is the way to get drummed out of the Union of the Men. Integrity is viewed with suspicion in every context, but it is held to be completely without meaning or merit in the bedroom. ‘A stiff prick has no conscience’ is what the boys say to each other, one of those clumsy jokes otherwise decent people use to excuse their worst impulses. But that is when principles matter, when they’re challenged, when your every yearning and appetite is crying for the one thing your will must forbid. Integrity is wholeness. Undivided. Undiverted. Undiluted.”


“That’s what it means.”


“If necessary.”

“Do you… do you cry for me sometimes, Devin?”

“I’ve cried for you every day since the day I met you, since you made me cry in Harvard Square. I used to enjoy it more…”

She was standing at the window and she could see his wry grin in the blackness beyond the halo of the streetlight.

“But that doesn’t change anything, Gwen. I love you forever. I love you more than I’ve ever loved any woman, more that I ever will love any woman. I’ll love you every day until the day I die. But that doesn’t change anything.”

She said nothing. When there’s nothing you can do, do nothing.

Very softly, very sadly, he said, “Don’t call me too often.”

“Does that mean it’s all right if I call again?”

He was quiet for a very long time and then finally he spoke even more softly. “Don’t call me too often…”

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