Monday, October 25, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 8

The Way Forward: Chapter 8

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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We went to a jazz club that had been suggested to Allison by a friend, and set up to spend our evening at a cozy table on the balcony, where we could see the band. I sat quietly and fortified my courage with two liters of 1664 -- there was something I had to do -- while Allison told me of all the news from home.

Allison's perpetually unhappy mother lived to complain about things (a trait that Allison seemed to be picking up), and had most recently been complaining about both her neck and insurance costs as a result of slamming her car into a bank. Not a snow bank or the side of a hill, a large building where they put money. How the hell do you run into a bank? I suspected she had done so on purpose after having too good a day.

I received an uncomfortably detailed update on the health of Allison's incontinent cat, whom I had never been fond of, especially after he had wandered down to Allison's parents' basement and hissed at the two of us while we were having sex. And I was brought up to date on just about every meal Allison had eaten since I had seen her last -- she could talk for hours about meals she had eaten. Letters from Allison often read like a menu.

I signaled the waitress for another beer then leaned forward across the table. I pressed hard on my temples for a moment, reached over and held Allison's hand. I decided it was time to say it.

"Allison, listen: I love you."

Every part of her stiffened as if she were one of those gazelles you see on nature programs who have just spotted a cheetah, as if she was trying to pretend she hadn't heard what I'd said and that I wouldn't say anything else as long as she didn't move.

Yep. That's why I hadn't said it before. I knew something was up at the train station -- the way she had looked at me. Her head wasn't tilted, her eyes weren't reading every part of me. She hadn't given me my look. She looked at me instead like a challenge, as if she needed to rotate the tires on a car but only had one jack. Things between us had been unusually rough that day. We always fought, but usually the first day together went better than this. I knew, though, that if I said those words -- "I love you" -- she would have to respond. It would force confrontation.

But now, crushed by her silence, I was realizing she wouldn't say the words back to me, and I felt weak. I didn't want a confrontation anymore. If she wasn't going to say, "I love you," back to me, I didn't want to have to deal with whatever came in its place. We were engaged in a staring competition, and I was the first to flinch. I raised my eyebrow and softly squeezed her hand, begging her with my eyes not to just say something but to say what I wanted to hear.

"I love you, too," she said, slowly, sounding like she was trying to convince herself.

"But?"

Even though she'd said the words, she hadn't said them the way I wanted to hear them.

"But. But nothing. I do love you. I care deeply about you -- I always will. I could never stop caring about you."
"But?"
"But nothing. I told you."
"You're shit at this game," I said. "What's wrong?"

The longest, most terrifying, most painful moments in a man's life come in the pause between when he asks a woman, "What's wrong?" and when she starts talking. The longer the pause, the more he suffers an exponential private hell as his mind works at light speed to try to come up with worst-case scenarios. He reaches a logical worst-case scenario (she wants to break up with me) and an extreme scenario (she is, in fact, a man, has a hideous and disfiguring sexually transmitted disease, and wants to break up with me), then he thinks of all the places he would rather be than waiting for a woman to answer a question he really shouldn't have asked.

Why couldn't I have just been happy with "I love you?" She had said it -- I should have just dropped the issue right there. Why did I have to push her? I was drawing myself into something I didn't want any part of, but couldn't stop. Why couldn't I be back in England or further away -- in a tent somewhere in Iceland -- where I wouldn't be having this conversation?

"Nothing's wrong, Ben. I love you. I'm happy to be in Paris with you right now. Can't you be happy, too?"
"I'm having a ball," I said. Agitation slipped out in my voice; the bitterness in my tone was too strong. "I just want to know what's wrong."
"Don't, Benjamin. Don't start, OK? Don't embarrass me. I'll tell you later."

Oh, no. No, no, no, no. No. I learned in fifth grade, when Erin Caley gave back her friendship bracelet, that when a female says she is going to tell you anything "later," it is going to be bad. Good news is never saved for "later." And telling me not to embarrass her only meant that Allison was going to tell me something that she knew was going to cause me to react in an embarrassing way.

Admittedly, I could have and should have waited until later. I knew that whatever she had to say was not going to make me happy. I knew it was bad. I didn't want to know right then what was wrong, but now my third beer had arrived and my head was starting to swim and I wanted to win. She had thrown down the gauntlet, whatever that means. I couldn't let her control the situation. Her refusal to tell me something was an attack on my pride; she had presented the challenge of extracting information and now I had to know, as much as I didn't really want to.

"It's going to be very hard for me to enjoy the rest of the night if I've got something hanging over me like that. I'll just end up thinking the worst," I said. "Just tell me what's on your mind."

I ran my fingers through her hair, brought her close and kissed her. It was a long kiss, wet, and passionate. For a moment I felt a rush of triumph, as I could tell that my kiss would break her will. I had won. Ha ha. Manly triumph. I moved my right hand to her cheek and stroked it softly. It was wet.

She was crying.

Oh, shit.

Her hand moved to the back of my head and she pulled me in tighter. I felt a heavy sob reverberate through her and into our kiss. She broke off and brought a napkin to her face, and somewhere inside of me I knew where this was going.

"Oh, Ben. You have always been so good to me. You care about me so much and you love me and always treat me so nice -- better than I deserve to be treated."

Fuck. Shit. Motherfucker. Goddamn. Son of a bitch.

I no longer wanted to play detective. I no longer wanted to win. I no longer wanted her to tell me what was on her mind. But it was too late. It was like a winter car accident: your car hits a patch of ice and you see the tree you're going to run into, but there's nothing you can do to stop it from happening. You can pump the brakes, throw it in reverse, or kill the engine, but your car will slide slowly, inevitably, into the tree.

"I slept with someone," Allison said.

It was 11:30 p.m.

...

"I assume this is someone different than the guy you slept with last March?" I asked.
"Than Mike? Yes. That was just a one-time thing."
"And this was not a one-time thing?"
"No."
"How many times a thing was it?"
"I don't know. Forty? Fifty? Who counts?"
"Oh, shit," I said, falling back in my chair. My head hurt. "And when were you planning on telling me?"
"Tomorrow. Maybe. Next week. Jesus. I don't know, Benjamin. This is hard for me, too. I hoped you would understand that. I don't think you realize how difficult this is for me. I do love you, you know that."
"Funny way of showing it."
"It was just one of those things that happened. It was my birthday, and Cord and I were drinking so much Dujac -- it's a wine -- and next thing we know we're kissing and his hands were so… oh, God… and you were far away. And I'm so lonely here. You don't know how hard it is. And one thing just led to another…"

Forty or fifty times.

"Your birthday," I said. "That's why I couldn't get a hold of you that night."

It felt surreal. She had cheated on me before. Coincidentally, it had been on my birthday the first time. Again, I had been hundreds of miles away -- me at Macalester and her at UC Davis -- but she didn't tell me until the summer. My parents were out of town and we had spent three days together at their house, with me pretending Allison and I were married. I made her breakfast in the mornings and we went on walks through the neighborhood after dinner. We had just had sex when she told me. We were lying there in my bed, holding each other's hand and feeling my little desk fan blow softly across our naked bodies. I felt her hand squeeze mine and I looked over and her eyes were filled with tears. It all went downhill from there.

The mental image of how I reacted after being told, standing naked in my parents' garage throwing punches at an old piece of plywood until my knuckles bled, now flashed through my mind. It had taken her months to tell me, but she had cried and cried until I felt guilty, as if I had forced her to have sex with someone else on my birthday. I can't remember exactly how it all played out, but I begged her not to give up on me. Of course it had been hard on her with me still living back home. Long-distance relationships are always hard. And sometimes bad things happen. But you have to be stronger than those things. Right?

Over that summer we put things back together as best we could. In the fall, I restructured my life to be more attentive to her. I wrote to her more often, called her as much as I could afford, and made the 36-hour drive to Davis any time I had a three-day weekend. When Allison announced she was going to spend a year studying in Nantes, I switched majors and elbowed my way into Portsmouth University -- I had been informed that studying a politics degree would all but assure my admittance. Moving to Pompey put me just across the English Channel from her. It wasn't perfect, but I was only 150 miles away as the crow flies. Not being a crow, those miles meant long, uncomfortable hours on buses and ferries and trains, but I saw her about every two weeks -- far more than before.

Now it was all dissipating. I wanted to be angry but the fight just wasn't there. You know those movies where some guy is out doing a space walk and the cable connecting him to the ship snaps? I felt like that guy. Right away, his life doesn't change much. He's still got plenty of oxygen in his suit. But as his last little connection to everything he has ever known and understood speeds beyond his grasp, it has to dawn on him: "Goddamn, I’m going to run out of oxygen soon. In an hour or two, things are really, really going to suck. And there's nothing I can do to stop it."

I couldn't really feel the pain yet, but I knew it was coming.

Wait.

"Cord?! What the fuck kind of name is Cord?"
"You've never heard it before?" she asked, letting me know by the tone of her voice that I was an idiot.
"I've heard it before. That doesn't make it a legitimate name."
"It's a cowboy name. I thought you'd understand that, being from Texas."
"Tyler is a cowboy name. Cord is the thing that runs from a socket to a lamp. It's just a random noun; his parents could have just as easily named him Boot or Saxophone."
"Jesus, Benjamin. Just stop."
"Fine."

I signaled the waitress for another beer.

"And a whisky," I said, making the international symbol for a shot glass with my thumb and forefinger. "WIS-KEE."
"Jesus, Benjamin. I do not want to have to deal with you drunk. OK? I don’t think that's a…"
"Bollocks to what you think. Let me ask you: where do we go from here?"
"What do you mean?"
"From here. Where do we go? What happens next? You've fucked another guy. Do we go through all the same shit again? How am I supposed to react? Are you done with your bloke…"
"Cord."
"I don't care about his name. I don't want to know his name. Are you done with your bloke? Are you going to keep on shagging your bloke and keep me on the side? What happens now?"
"This is what I'm talking about," Allison said. "All this English slang. That's not like you used to be. Where does that come from?"
"I said: are you done with your bloke?"
"Cord," she made her fish face. "I don't know, Benjamin. I wanted to talk to you about this, and about what you want, and about our dynamic. But you don't seem to want to be an adult about it. You don't seem to want to understand or relate to me. I've invested a lot in our relationship and you just want to yell. That hurts me, Benjamin. It hurts my heart."

Our dynamic? She started crying again.

"And you are fitting in so well in your little world over there. It's like you don't even need me anymore," she said. "But it's difficult in Nantes. You don't know how hard it is for me here. I am so lonely. I am so challenged. And it's hard to fit in. And Cord understands that."
"Are you faking it? You look like you're trying to cry, and you sound like you've rehearsed this speech a few times."
"Jesus, Benjamin. I'm trying to express my feelings, but you don't seem to care. You don't want to understand my concerns. Can't you understand my situation? Can't you understand?"
"OK. But you understand why I might be just a little upset that my girlfriend is shagging another bloke? Can't you? I'm finding out just minutes before New Year's?"

I was starting to feel out of control. Part of me wanted to hold onto the numbness I felt, part of me wanted to throw a tantrum and part of me wanted to break her down with words. I hadn't always been a better speaker, but I had always been better with words than her -- I wanted to construct logic arguments to make her feel terrible and beg me to take her back. But there is no logic to relationships. Love, or the lack thereof, never does what you want it to. My words were drowning in emotion and I couldn't get them to come out right.

The waitress brought my whisky and beer. In a fit of melodrama, I slammed back the shot and grit my teeth at Allison as it ate away my insides.

"Your timing is fucking great," I growled, pointing at my watch.
"I told you: I wasn't going to tell you tonight, Benjamin. Jesus. And stop using your slang. What is shagging, anyway?"
"Sexual intercourse. Fucking. A bit of 'how's your father?' The old in and out. The horizontal tango…"
"It's not always horizontal."
"What?!"
"Sometimes we have sex standing up."
"The hell? I don't want to hear about your sex life with other men. I don't want to hear about you and other men at all. You're my girlfriend. You are not supposed to have sex with other guys. I'm sure that makes me something awful in your mind, but I am not cool with my girlfriend having sex with other blokes."
"Was your girlfriend, Benjamin. Was," she said. "The way you are reacting to this is only proving to me that I made the right decision."

Now it's a decision? I thought loneliness and too much wine were to blame. She had made a decision -- a conscious decision -- to rip the heart out of my chest?

"It was the right decision to have sex with somebody else -- standing up, maybe hanging from the fucking ceiling in one of those little swings even -- dozens of times?" I asked.

"Jesus, Benjamin. Don't start with your sophistry. You're supposed to be understanding. I thought you cared about me. This is what's happening in my life, Benjamin. If you cared about me, you would care about what happens in my life. Cord is a little shorter than you, so we can get the angle right. Remember when you and I tried it standing up, and it just didn't work?"

"Oh, fuck! What the fuck, huh? I mean what the fucking fuck?"
"What does that mean?"
I didn't know what it meant. I had read it in a book a few years before, and it struck me as an appropriate thing to say right then.

"Forget it," I said, driving my fist hard into my chest in attempt to display my frustration.

The punch made a loud thump and hurt far more than I had expected. I took in a short, painful breath and stared at her. I was trying to act out. I wanted her to feel guilty and start pleading with me to take her back. But I had no control over any of it. My words weren't working. She wasn't responding. I couldn't even gauge how I felt. Confused and not knowing how to deal with any of it, I did what any intelligent male would do: I made an ass of myself.

"Here's something else I picked up in England."

I drank down my beer in one long, gulping fit, like a child draining a glass of Kool-Aid on a hot day. I slammed the mug on the table, gasped for air and extended two fingers at her. I slammed a handful of francs on the table and stood up. My head was swimming and things weren't coming off quite the way I wanted them to. It wasn't very cinematic at all. In a film, Allison would be gripping my arm and refusing to let me go; in a film, the band would have been playing something a little more dramatic and heart wrenching than Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train;" and in a film, my chair would not have toppled over and hit the woman at the table next to me when I stood up.

"Crap. Sorry," I said as I righted the chair. "Tell her I'm sorry, Allison."
"Il est ivre. You're acting like a fucking child, Benjamin."

I looked at her and felt my face go hot with embarrassment and frustration. My throat was tight and my eyes started to water. I sniffed and wiped at my face with both hands. I looked her in the eye and tried to pull something from her. She looked away.

"Just tell me how I can fix it. Give me directions on what exactly I am supposed to do -- a blueprint and a little flowchart explaining the necessary steps to make this all go away."

She was silent. She just looked at the band and sipped her wine. After a few seconds of staring at her staring away, I came around the table and lightly pushed her hair back behind her ear. She looked up at me without turning her head.

"Happy New Year, Allison."
"Where are you going?"
"A walk, I think. I'll see you back at the hotel and maybe we can talk about this more."
"But it's almost midnight. Who's going to give me a New Year's kiss?"
"You don't seem to have any trouble finding people to kiss. You'll do alright. Maybe you should call your bloke."
"Cord is in Nantes," she said, lilting her voice to let me know that I was King Stupid of Stupidonia for suggesting such a geographical impossibility. "And I couldn't call him anyway. I don't have a phone card or anything."

I dug out my MCI calling card and flung it at her.

...

It was snowing when I stepped outside the bar. I took in a long breath and tried to think of what to do next. The cold air shot to my brain and I felt instantly sober and terribly vulnerable to the pain that was starting to creep in. I waited a few minutes for Allison to come running after me. She didn't, and I started walking when I heard the band inside the bar stop playing and ready itself to count down to midnight.

A car of young men drove by and shouted at me.

"Bonne Année!"

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