Here is another of the short stories I wrote in 1992. Reading it recently for the first time in over twenty years, it seemed to me that this story, along with many of the others in the collection Bleeding Hearts, had been written by someone else. I remembered nothing about the characters and could not recall the circumstances in which I was writing at the time, nor even where I was living. I have a vague recollection that my life was going through a period of turmoil, or that it was about to go through such a period. It is also clear to me that through these short pieces of fiction, I was trying to undestand something about my life, and trying to muster a little worldly wisdom to pass on to the reader through my narrator. Trying and failing. That is what writing is about for much of the time, doing one’s best, knowing that often it is not good enough and that maybe it will never be good enough but that it is the best you can do at the time. There is the famous quotation from Samuel Beckett: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
I’m not so sure that in subsequent years I succeeded in failing better. For the most part I abandoned writing fiction and concentrated on what I believe to be my only hope to progress as a writer, which is to write poetry. There too, I have had my failures, but failure is something that goes with the territory. Writing is, after all, a pursuit, in the sense of a chasing after something elusive: the truth, the philosopher’s stone, whatever. The truth about who we are and what we feel and what we know as conscious, sensitive human beings. It all sounds so easy and yet it is the greatest challenge any of us faces in our lives: to find the truth and to be faithful to it, to live it and to feel it and to express it, and to make it the cornerstone of our relationships. To be true to ourselves and to those we love, and to be true and honest in the wider world. Again, it sounds so easy when put into a simple sentence, but in practice it’s another matter.
Since 1992 I have been through other periods of turmoil: that too is part of the nature of life, the sine curve of our existence, the good times and the bad. Occasionally I think I have come to greater understanding, only to discover that past mistakes have been repeated, past failings have re-emerged, and on the surface I would appear to have learnt nothing from my experiences. So now I take it a day at the time, aware that at any moment life might release another curve ball and I need to do my best in meeting the challenge, and to accept, in all humility, that my best might not be enough.
The Good Times
The things I’ve heard tonight have shocked me. Not that they are shocking in themselves. What’s shocking is that all this should be happening in my house, between my parents. Sure I have plenty of friends who tell me worse stories, about their parents, about the goings-on, the fights, the separations, the divorces. But somehow, I always thought my parents were above that. They always seemed to me to be a perfectly matched couple. Sure they’ve had their differences over the years, but nothing they couldn’t handle. They’ve always kissed and made up. But now this, this has changed everything and I know my life will never be the same again. I will never be able to talk to them with the same trust, I just know that. They haven’t mentioned me yet, but sooner or later they’ll get around to me. I’m not top of their agenda tonight. Kids rarely are. I’ll be fifteen in three months time. In three years I’ll be able to leave home, if I still have a home to leave.
“How did it happen,” my father is asking her. “How did you meet him?”
The question irritates my mother, I can tell from her voice.
“Does that really matter, Ray. Haven’t we been through all this?”
“I’d like to know,” he says. “I’d just like to know.”
“You think you’ll feel better if you know,” she asks.
“No,” he says. “No, I don’t think that. I’d just like to know how it all happened, how it started. Is that too much to ask?”
It goes quiet for a while. She wants to put a gloss on it, make it sound not as bad as it is. Perhaps she wants to minimise the hurt. These are delicate things to relate.
“Well,” she begins, “first of all he was just a customer. A regular. In there two, maybe three evenings a week.”
“Married,” my father asks, “Does he have a wife and family, kids? Is he leaving them for you?”
My mother is angry.
“Are you going to let me tell this or are you going to interrupt all the time because if you are….”
My father says nothing.
“Anyway,” my mother says, “we just got talking, the way you do. I must have spoken with hundreds of men since I’ve been working there. You know the way it is, men come in after a hard day’s work and they want to talk. If they’re alone they’ll talk to anyone. Especially they talk to the waitresses. It’s all part of the service.”
I hear my father laugh. It’s a sad, hollow laugh.
“It’s expected,” my mother says. “Conversation. We have to talk to the customers. You know that. You must have spoken to waitresses in your time.”
“Spoken yes,” my father says, “but I never took any of them to bed. Never. It was just talk, just normal talk, passing the time.”
My mother coughs to clear her throat:
“Well, that’s the way it was with me,” she says. “Normal, everyday talk, passing the time: How you doing? What’s new? How’s your week been? That sort of thing. To begin with. I never dreamt it would…that things might…but that’s the way it happened. Just talk. And then one thing led to another. He asked me out and I said no. And he asked again and again I turned him down, until in the end he asked me so often I just thought what the hell and I went. I never intended to go any further. Just a meal, just an evening. But then it happened. You can’t fight it. It happens. It drags you along. You lose your senses, whatever. The more you get to know someone. I never planned it.”
“What does he do?” my father asks.
“Engineering,” she says, “He’s in construction, roads, bridges, civic buildings, that line of work.”
“Mostly in Montana; a little out-of-state but mostly here.”
“And he’s doing all right?”
“He’s working,” my mother says.
She sounds tired and deflated. This is the downside that she has to negotiate in order to free herself. She’s tired of the conversation and tired of this part of her life. It’s just something she has to go through, she knows that, but she wants it to be over. Like in the films when the police drag someone in off the streets and throw a bunch of questions at them and the suspect answers slowly and in a bored voice. She’s acting like that. Just like in the movies when they’re accounting for their movements, whatever, talking about their life, about so and so, but it all sounds so passionless because they’re saying these things in order to avoid saying other things and they make it sound as though their life is grey and uneventful. There’s no detail. That’s how my mother comes across now. Acting. Going through the motions as politely as possible. But you can hear it in her voice. She’ll be glad when this is all over and she can get on with the rest of her life. My father, on the other hand, is trawling for evidence. He thinks that the more information he has on this guy, the greater chance he has of nailing him. This talk is his last hope. If this fails, he’s lost her. For good.
Honestly, you think you know someone and you know nothing. Nothing at all. I’ve always trusted my mother, told her things, been open and felt that that was a useful thing in life, to have a mother who could listen, give some advice, open my eyes a little to the world. To me she was always a known quantity, inside out. But after tonight, I know nothing, and it hurts. It hurts and it makes me angry to be deceived like this. By her. Unfaithful. My father uses the word as though it only affected him, as though the only one let down in all this is him. What about me? Don’t I have feelings? Haven’t I got a right to bawl her out. I trusted her and she’s such a hypocrite. You see, I’ve been going with Jed now for nearly six months, and one evening, after he’d dropped me off home—we’d been to a movie or something—, I had this big long talk with my mother about school and the future and my life and so on, and eventually we got around to Jed and I told her that Jed was fine, that I was very happy with him, that he treated me properly and that I was just prepared to see how things worked out and wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. That’s good she said, smiling at me. I remember her smiling. I can see her face now. That smile, that false, deceitful smile, Jesus. She was fixing me something as we talked, a hot drink and a sandwich. And that smile of hers, a real mother’s smile. A tell-me-more smile. I wasn’t embarrassed. Why should I be, with my own mother? Yes, I said, he is affectionate, we hold hands and he kisses me. And you kiss him back, she said. Yes, I do, I told her, of course I do. But that’s it. Just kissing. That’s good, she said, placing the supper in front of me, that’s how it should be at your age. There’s plenty of time for other things when you’re older. I knew what other things she meant. Half the girls my age in Montana were up to other things.
“Do you want anything?” I hear my mother ask him.
My father doesn’t answer. Perhaps he’s shaking his head. Perhaps he’s thinking he wants her and nothing else, he doesn’t want her to go. I don’t know what he’s thinking. But with a question like that I can imagine. He also wants this night to be over, to be forgotten. He wants everything to slip back into place the way it has always been, but deep down he knows that’s not going to happen. He must know that if I know it. And I do. The tone of voice, the confidence, the sheer energy, the calm in my mother’s voice. The detachment. It all says one thing: I’m heading for better times, I can afford a little generosity.
“Well I do,” she says. “I’m going to fix myself something. You’re sure? “
I hear her stand and so I hurry back to my bed and get in under the covers. The living room door opens. She walks out into the kitchen. I hear the clatter. And I wait. I wait. Wait until she’s finished and all the time I’m thinking how I trusted her, put my life in her hands and now she’s doing this and it’s as though I don’t exist. I’m not in there at all. And it makes me sick. And my father. The way she’s treating him. The way she’s behaved. She doesn’t deserve to be a part of this family. Let her go. But I know that I love her, and have always loved her and cannot picture a life without her. And I want to cry. I want to get up out of bed and shout at her, shake her, pull at her hair, slap her, tell her she has to love us, that she can’t just walk out on us. We need her. Both of us. But I cannot cry. I feel like crying but the tears just won’t come. As though what’s happening is so important there’s no time for tears. I listen and wait and think of the years we’ve had, the years I was growing up, the good times. The times I would say to her: When I’m older I want to be just like you. Lay my head on her lap and look up at her and say: Just like you, and marry a man just like daddy. And see her smile light up, a smile spreading slowly across her face. Just like you, I’d say. Baby talk. But then times change, people change and she has a right to a life of her own, a right to her own happiness. She must be free to do what she feels she must. Because otherwise she cannot be happy. Yet she always used to be happy. She always was happy. I always thought so. She never let on about any misery in her life. I never want you to die, I’d say, never. You understand? Or I want to die before you because I don’t think I could live without you, either of you. And she would smile at me then and think: What a sweet, loving thing to say.
When she’s finished in the kitchen, I creep back out of my bedroom and I can hear them talking again. My father is laughing. I cannot believe it but he is laughing, and she is laughing too. He’s talking now:
“And the time we were driving down to Reno for Bud’s wedding, when Julie was still a baby, and we got a flat tyre in the middle of the night and when I went to fit the spare that was flat too and we had no pump and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours until a car pulled in and we could get a lift to the nearest town? Do you remember that?”
And my mother laughs too and I wonder Jesus Christ, what is going on? Next they’ll be taking out the photos and he’ll be saying: Who’s this, Patty, tell me, where was this taken? And she’ll say, as she always says to him: Ray, you have no memory for faces or places and he’ll smile at her and say: Honey, you’re right, goddam it, you’re always right, and laugh as they always laughed in the past. The past. She’s leaving and yet there they are, locked in the past. You can’t go back because there is no back to go to, because the past is always with us. Love, past loves, always with us. And now they are chatting like two old friends about shared days, shared hopes. Shared dreams. The time she burned the turkey on Thanksgiving. The time he went fishing when we were vacationing up by Fort Peck and caught so many fish he couldn’t give them away. Like something miraculous. And I think how happy I would be if Jed could come along with us one vacation and we could all go walking through the forest and have barbecues and lie out in the sun and talk and be with one another and just live, the way we have always lived, as a family. How can he laugh when he knows it’s all over, her mind is made up?
“Yes,” I hear my mother say, “they were good times. We did have good times. Nothing can take away the good times.”
And now there is a hint of sadness in her voice.
“You see,” he says. “You see what we have done we can do again. What we had we can have again.”
And when he says those words I know just how desperate he is to hold onto her, and I know too that she does not believe him. Her heart is elsewhere. Not denying the past but not tied down by it either. And they are silent. For a long while they are silent and I can picture it from where I stand. That silence. Two worlds. Silence tells you there are two worlds. Silence is separation and the longer it lasts the greater the possibility that the silence will never again be breached. Separate lives. A fork in the road. And I begin to shiver. I want them to speak, to go on speaking, to fill the silence with their memories if nothing else, to fuel the present with words, to keep it alive, the flame glowing. But there is only silence, like the silence of hospitals, just a flicker and then silence. Total silence.
“Do you love him?” my father asks her.
I want her to say no, to hesitate and then say: No, no I don’t.
”Yes,” she says, “I love him.”
“Would you stay if you didn’t love him?” my father asks.
And I think how much I love my father for having the courage to ask such a question.
“No,” she says, “I wouldn’t stay.”
“Because you’re not happy,” my father says. “You’re not happy, here, with us.”
And now my mother is crying. Faintly, barely audible, but there are tears. She, the strong one, the one with all the decisions behind her, is buckling under the strain. He is holding her. If I know anything he is holding her and stroking her hair, running fingers through her hair, brushing away her tears, holding her and loving her and waiting for some sort of an answer, for some sort of explanation as to why, suddenly after seventeen years, his life is in crisis. She’s looking up at him, her face stained with mascara, looking up at him I imagine pleading for understanding, not for forgiveness, just understanding. Nothing that is obvious requires understanding, I think. Not at all. Understanding is like faith, a leap in the dark. To see what another person sees without really seeing it: that is understanding. To know how they feel without feeling it or really knowing how they feel at all. He hasn’t asked her why she no longer loves him. He never will ask that question, I know him. You cannot ask that question and hope for an honest answer, because there is no honest answer. Love is not about honesty. It is about love only. Even an impossible love is love and it may be the most important love in your life, the love of your life, and totally impossible and totally obsessive and enthralling, and totally you, and everything else second best, make-do. An impossible love. My father’s love for this woman who now rests in his arms, in tears, for another man. The silence in tears, in sadness. Unreachable love. Reaching out. Stroking her hair, wiping the tears from her face and she’s not even there. All these things I’m learning in the darkness. And she’s still there, in his arms and perhaps even she is surprised that she found the courage to say no, I wouldn’t stay.
John Lyons, 1992