Him and Her
He had upset her. It was about time she told him, she said, that his attitude was hurting her. She was undermined as a woman. Her confidence was seeping away.
He said he didn’t want to lose her. He was prepared to do what was necessary. He was prepared to change.
Perhaps she said something or produced a sound of exclamation or disbelief.
Yes, people change, people change all the time.
Not at his age. Besides, she didn’t want anyone to change, let alone him, she said.
He didn’t want to lose her, he repeated.
It wasn’t about losing her. She wasn’t going anywhere. What she wished was that he would stop hurting her.
Once again, he said he didn’t want to lose her. He would change.
Didn’t he hear her? She didn’t want him to change, she said.
He couldn’t win, he complained. She didn’t like him as he was and she didn’t want him to change. What could he do?
The idea that he would change under pressure bothered her. It made her uncomfortable. It made her feel worthless. It made her feel that what he would give her would not be given freely. Only surrendered in blackmail. She wanted him to enjoy the pleasure one experiences choosing a present when there is no obligation to do so. When there is no occasion requiring a present. When one chooses a present for the sake of it. For the pleasure of giving. That would give her the pleasure of receiving. She longed for that kind of relationship. Free giving. Free receiving.
Later that day, he sent her a message that he had found a solution that might suit everyone and he would tell her on the phone the next day.
A solution that might suit everyone. Right. Is this the language of a board meeting? A business proposition? How could he be so insensitive?
Don’t you think he was insensitive, she asked her friend across the small round table. And careless with language, a crime of equal seriousness for anyone, let alone a poet? A man at the next table looked up. Was she too loud? So what? This man was probably the same. Insensitive. Self-centred.
She waited for her friend to agree. She asked again. Was he insensitive or not? Yes, the friend said, nodding. She wished her friend would be more direct and condemn him properly. With conviction.
His business-speak message made her angry, she went on. (But was it business speak? she wondered later. Had she overreacted?) Her first thought was to reply saying she was prepared to offer this and that and in return, as a sort of payment, he should offer this and that. She was going to ask him to sign a contract. But she resisted the sarcasm. She held back until her anger subsided.
Best to meet in person, she wrote, deals clinched on the phone might lead to misunderstanding. She tried to be ironic. She tried to expose his farce. It passed him by.
What bothered her most, she told her friend, was that he didn’t seem to consider her feelings. It was all about him, she said. The continual mantra that he didn’t want to lose her was irritating. He thought only about himself. He understood nothing of what she said. He understood nothing about her pain.
She knew it was a cliché, but why are men so emotionally illiterate, she asked.
The friend raised her eyebrows and shrugged.
And another thing, she said looking at her friend, he knew nothing about women, this man who grew up with four sisters.
Her anger melted into sadness.
He understood. He accepted responsibility. He was guilty. But she had to give him another chance. Would she? She didn’t seem prepared to try again.
He was wrong. He acknowledged it. He acknowledged it repeatedly. She was right to complain. He needed that. He needed the kick in the arse. He needed to be woken up. But now that he knew and accepted that he had behaved wrongly, she ought to be gracious and give him another chance, he said.
He would make sure that things were different. He would be more attentive, more considerate of her feelings. He said it and he meant it. But would she give him more time?
The way she spoke this morning and then that message…no, he wasn’t hopeful.
He didn’t want to lose her. He told her that but she didn’t seem to care. She was angry; no doubt about that. She didn’t listen to him. He was beginning to wonder whether it was all the same to her what happened to them.
M was right, M was always right. God, he had seen him through enough heartaches. M, dear old M, always ready to offer a metaphorical shoulder to cry on.
But M must know that his advice is unlikely to work. How could he take it easy? Relax. Let time pass and let things settle. Wait for her to calm down? Sit tight through the storm? That’s not him. He is the tsar of anxiety. Worry personified. That’s him. That’s always been him. His friend must know that.
Either she will come back, M said, or you will have to get used to a life without her.
There must be another option. What if he sent her a note explaining his feelings, admitting his guilt and reiterating how much he would hate to lose her? It is bound to move her. Besides, writing always helps. It helps to clarify his feelings, yes, but would it help the situation? Would it make her see that she had hurt him by calling him insensitive?
It was insensitive of her to call him insensitive.
She wrote a story about him. As with everything she wrote, she showed him the story. It wasn’t the first time that she had made him into a character in her fiction. He said he didn’t mind. He didn’t mind as long as no one could recognise him. He was comfortable with being used in that fashion. She always changed the name and a few details. Only the two of them knew it was about him.
But with this one, he said, she had gone too far. No, she didn’t use his name and not everything she said about the character described him – he had only three sisters, not four – but the story annoyed him. He was angry and he told her that.
She laughed. It’s only fiction, she said. You’re an educated reader; you can’t take it so literally.
It was not fiction. It was his life she was using and from the way in which she did it, he knew she cared more about her writing than about him. Besides, the character was obnoxious, one of those men even he would avoid. None of his friends were like that. An insensitive male pig, you could say.
She laughed again and it made him even angrier.
It’s only fiction, she repeated. You shouldn’t identify so much with the character.
What did she think he was: a spotty undergraduate weeping over the demise of Heathcliff? This was different. It was about him. Of course he identified with the character.
What was he to do?
Write a story yourself, she said. Did he hear a touch of mockery?
Perhaps he will. He will show her. Tell her what he really thinks of her. Isn’t that what she said? Yes, she said that she had written the story to tell him certain things, to make him understand how she felt and what he was doing to her. Yes, he knew that. That’s why he was upset.
But it’s only fiction, she repeated. Nothing to do with you.
She can’t have it both ways: either it’s fiction or it’s his life. If it’s the former, it has nothing to do with him and then she cannot expect him to consider whatever she wanted to tell him, and if it’s the latter, then he has every right to be angry. She cannot represent him in such a way.
Oh, yes, I can, she laughed. It’s up to me. I am the writer. It’s my point of view.
But it’s not true what you wrote.
Truth is irrelevant? Do you mean that fake news is the same as real news?
Oh, no. Leave that out. This is fiction. Its truth does not come from reality. It comes from its own fictional world, from the story’s integrity.
And another thing, he said, the last time they planned to meet, she cried off because she had already arranged something with a friend. Which friend? Had she invented a friend just to put him off?
What a ridiculous thought, she said.
Later, it occurred to him that perhaps she was only with him to use him to inhabit her stories.
She said he was being absurd. Why would she need him for stories? Stories were around everyone. She needed him because she cared for him. She cared for him in more ways than one. But he had to stop hurting her.
Perhaps the only way they could communicate was through their stories, he thought. She needed him for her stories and he needed her as a lover. He cared about her even if she could not see it.
She smiled but said nothing.
Perhaps she only wants a virtual relationship, he thought.
Perhaps he only wants my body and a few interesting exchanges during pillow talk, she thought.
Relationships should help, not hinder, living, she thought. But what was living, apart from carrying on? Carrying on with life. Helped or hindered by relationships, or anything else, time passed and one carried on.
- What happened?
- Not much.
- Did they continue to see each other?
- Did he change?
- No. Not a bit.
- And she didn’t mind?
- Yes, she did.
- But she accepted the situation as it was.
- Not really.
- Every now and then she complained. The scenes above were repeated many times.
- But nothing changed?
- Oh, yes, it did.
- They died. First one, and then the other.
Vesna Main lives in London. Her stories have appeared in journals and two have been selected for the anthology Best British Short Stories (Salt 2017 and 2019).
Among her publications are a collection of short stories, Temptation: A User's Guide (Salt 2018) and a novel, Good Day? (Salt 2019), which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize 2019.
This year, Platypus press published her novella ‘Bruno and Adèle’ and Seagull Books brought out her autofiction Only a Lodger … And Hardly That.