A Short Story by Robert Moulthrop
Evelyn, seated in the dark, knew she must not tell him the truth. She took a breath: the only way forward was to lie.
We need to talk, she thought. That’s always a good start. Hi, Alan. How was your day? Uh huh. Good. Here. Sit down. We need to talk.
That’ll be good, she thought. Easy. I’ll be on the sofa, he can be in the chair. Or the other chair. Yes, the other chair. With the light, then, on the left side of his face. He won’t look so…so serious, so trusting, so…
Wine. Or scotch. Or nothing. Wine. White. Something light. Something non-serious. Something civilized. They would sip their civilized white wine and she could, she would, lay it out, lay out for him her lie for him as if it were the truth.
Darling. Alan. There’s no other way to say this. There’s someone else. Yes, I know, sudden, but there it is. Here you’ve been wondering all these weeks why I couldn’t, why I wouldn’t invite you to move in, permanently. Well, the truth, darling … I’m sorry, there I am, calling you darling, force of habit, but the truth is, you are darling. That’s part of the problem, I think, that you’re “darling.” And, at the moment “darling” is a lot less than what I need.
He would say something, some mumble, some hurt disjointed phrases. His eyes, she knew, would begin to well up. He was so emotional. One of the traits that had endeared him to her at first, the large brown eyes brimming with significance, with understanding, with true love, ready to spill over, ready to open even wider for her to fall into. She had liked that about him, at first. Then she had come to love it. The soul of this man, this librarian worker drone whose exterior hid a vast emotional landscape she loved to explore.
She stopped. She knew she mustn’t think about him any longer, not in that way; mustn’t let any memory intrude on the reality, which would, she knew, be upon her soon enough. So…
“Darling” is a lot less, a significant amount less than what I need. What I want, Alan, at this stage of my life. And please, no speeches about changing, about working on yourself, about being stronger for me, finding ways to be less endearing. Why would you do that, Alan? Why try to pretend you’re something that you’re not? You, after all, are a poet. A real poet who gives his days over research on companies no one’s ever heard of in order to make eighteen partners and their little drones richer. All they do is…
She could hear him quite plainly now, how he would say Please, Evelyn, please don’t criticize my everyday work. You know how it upsets me when you carry on. They pay a decent salary, they really ask very little outside my eight hours. And yes, I like the occasional scribble, like my words, my patterns, the flux and flow of stress and meter. But you know, if I were a real poet, I’d be out there, wouldn’t I?
And here she would have to turn away, because of the truth: He was a real poet. His words surprised, his poems jumped and dazzled. That he had had no luck in getting recognition—only once in a church bulletin and twice in a local weekly shopping news—was, she was certain, the response of dunderhead editors who bestowed favors on their little friends rather than showing courage and taste. She and Alan had, however, put that discussion on a very high shelf. Her insistence that he submit his work to literary magazines had turned to irritated argument, and a final eruption punctuated by the slam of his composition book on the oak table, and him sitting, rigid, tight lipped, tapping his ball point pen on the book’s black and white cover. She had relented. “I won’t raise the subject again,” she said. She knew that her real task was to keep him writing; just as she knew she could never submit the poems herself; it would be considered a vile deed and she would never be forgiven. His compassion for her, she knew, stopped at his art.
And she suddenly thought of another possible path.
I was going to throw out some old books and magazines, she would say. But then I saw one of your old composition books in the pile; I opened it, and that poem of yours, the one that starts with “Thoughts of an umbrella furled…” And I just remembered that my old high school friend, Nicholas, was an editor, so I sent him an e-mail with your poem and he…
She would watch him stand, watch the red flush rise onto his face, watch him turn slowly with the anger of betrayal. “How dare you?” he would intone. “How could you?” And he would stomp out, slam the door; or stride across the room and tower over her, then leave.
But she knew, as she knew the looks of his eyes, the creases on his neck that appeared when he turned his head, knew that inside, deeper than he might admit, he would have been happy with the deed, would have been proud that she loved him enough to take his creative self in tender hands, and present it to the world. The problem was, there was no one named Nicholas; in fact, the entire world of poetry was a mystery to her. She understood how an arrangement of words could make her gasp, make her turn and look at him, to see if he were watching her. He never did. He claimed he couldn’t bear to watch her. But when, as often happened, his words—even when not about her, or them—would touch her, she would rise and go to him and kiss the back of his neck and put her arms on his shoulders, caressing the bone beneath the blue oxford-cloth. What she thought of as The Umbrella Poem had brought tears to her eyes; another, about light, had made her smile and she had smoothed the paper under her fingers, trying to absorb the words through her pores.
But now? No. Nothing about him and his words. Words were fatal. She knew that if she let his words rise up she would be, back against the wall, forced too close to truth. So it could be, would be…
She went back.
“All right, I’ll leave your work out of it. So let’s just say, as I said, that you’re a darling and I need more than a darling, and Dan is exactly what I need. Please don’t be upset, but yes, there is someone else. There’s been someone else for some time now.”
“Dan?” he would say. “Who is Dan?”
“You don’t know him. I met him through work.” she would say. “Not at work, but through. He works for a vendor, our IT vendor, a friend of Victor’s, he introduced us, after the quarterly meeting, and…”
(Here she would pause, she decided; wait to see whether she needed any more detail, any more flesh; she thought she would not, that he would, by the mere facts, be so distraught that she could safely trail off, leaving Dan as a handsome shirtsleeve and tie guy she with whom she had—somewhat suddenly, somewhat swiftly, somewhat unaccountably, but nonetheless deeply—fallen in love.)
And he might say, would say, “Is that why you’ve been distracted? Is that why you’re never really here?”
And she might say, could say, “Yes. That’s it. And please, Alan, don’t try to fix this or change it or anything like that. Just finish your wine, and then leave. I’ll mail you your extra shirts and socks. You know that moving in was never really going to work. Good bye.”
And she would say it, could say it, with absolute finality. And she would sit on the sofa, away from the lamp, calm and composed, breathing lightly and easily, her hands folded and quiet, in her lap.
She went into the kitchen, put the bottle of wine in the freezer, set the timer for 20 minutes, and went back to the living room. Or, she thought, as she sat, then tried her hands folded first one way and then another, there’s the truth.
In the end, the conversation did turn on the truth, finally, closer to the truth than she had thought possible, sitting there across from him, the man who was a treasure to her heart.
She began with the story of falling out of love, of suddenly falling in love with Dan. But Alan stopped her abruptly in mid-sentence. He simply did not believe, could not believe there was anyone named Dan.
“I don’t believe you,” he said.
“Believe it or not, it’s true,” she said.
“Prove it,” he said. “Show me something from this Dan. Show me an e-mail…”
“I deleted them all.”
“… a present then, a pressed flower, an entry in your diary…”
“You know I don’t keep a diary. And as for flowers…”
“You kept mine. The rose from our first date. You showed it to me. If you loved this Dan, there would be a rose.”
“Maybe it’s too early for roses.”
“Tell me, Evelyn.”
She looked away from his deep brown eyes.
“Tell me the truth.”
In the silence she unclasped her hands and took a sip of wine.
“Please,” he said quietly.
She thought of the poetry story, and looked at him. She thought she might be able to find someone named Nicholas, an editor, somewhere. She could make that part of the story come true. But she suddenly knew he would not be angry. So she took a quiet breath, and, without looking at him directly, began to speak. This was, she knew, dangerous territory. She knew she had to keep her love down, away. The slightest tinge and he would be back, entangled in her life, and she would be lost in his need.
“Remember the hiccups?” she said. It had been funny at the time. Hiccups over dinner that wouldn’t stop. No amount of breath-holding, wrong-side-of-the-glass-drinking, paper-bag-breathing, sudden-scaring, nothing worked. Finally, after an hour, they stopped.
“Yes,” he said. She knew he was looking directly at her.
“They came back,” she said, head down, speaking to her folded hands. “I went to the doctor.”
“I didn’t know,” he said.
“You were away.”
“Phoenix,” he said. “DataCom.”
“You sent me that cactus poem,” she said.
“E-mail poems don’t count,” he said.
“It was a real poem,” she said. “It made me cry.”
The poem’s heat and perseverance hung briefly in the air between them.
“What about the doctor?” he asked.
“Really,” she said. “You just have to leave. I can’t do this.”
“Can’t do what?” he asked.
“This,” she said, gesturing to the air between the two of them. “Any of this.”
“What?” he said. “Why?”
“I just can’t,” she said.
“But what is this? What did the doctor say? Whatever it is, you know I love you, you know I’m here for you, will be here for you.”
“I know,” she said.
“Want to be here for you, with you,” he said. He looked at her, then looked away. Her beauty in the lamplight stunned him, again.
“Well, that’s what you want, I guess. But what about me? What do I want?” she said.
“I don’t know now. I thought I did. But I don’t,” he said.
“No, you don’t, do you?” She let the simple declaration hang between them, creating a weight in the lamplit air.
“But you love me,” he said, a simple declarative statement.
“Do I? I’m not sure,” she said.
“Don’t lie to me. You know you love me. Look at me. Look…at…me.”
And she steeled herself against his eyes, then turned her head and looked at him with purposefully blank eyes, while inside she screamed Don’t Don’t Don’t Don’t.
“I still don’t believe you,” he said.
“Don’t believe me,” she said. “Whether you believe me or not is not important.”
“What’s important is that you go.”
“I’m not. I won’t.”
“Well, fuck you then.” She purposefully used a hard, coarse word. She let it hang in the air between them. “Do what you want. Just don’t be here when I get back.”
But neither of them left. And the argument went on: She adamant; he insisting that she was wrong, that there was love, deep and true, from him to her and her to him, love that would conquer all, that would make whatever happened something they would go through together, love that would keep them together. Forever.
Her eyes were burning now and her mouth was dry. She longed for quiet, for him to go. The first thing she would do, she decided, when he left, finally, was let cool water flow slowly into a tall glass, feeling secure in her hand, then slowly drink the water, fill her mouth before gulping, fill her mouth again, then drink, then fill the glass again and again, and drink, standing by the sink in the quiet cool of her kitchen. But now there were his words, his words, his words, pushing at her, trying to find an opening in her skin. She moved and looked directly at him until he stopped talking. Then she look a breath and said:
“You’re right, Alan. About everything.”
“Well, finally…” he began, but she looked at him, and he stopped.
“Please. For a change, just listen. You’ve forgotten about way back when. Before you. Way before. I was sick…”
“Yes? So?” He couldn’t help himself from breaking in. He needed to show her he was present, put himself out into the air between them. He longed to touch her, but knew she would recoil if he even reached for her, and couldn’t stand the picture of rejection he might have to carry. He felt the need to use words, even though she had begged him not to, because he knew words would help him sustain what was increasingly becoming a fiction: that there was an “Us.” He suddenly believed that a conversation, her words and his words around a topic, carried a weight that would bring them physically together.
She ignored his interjection. She knew he didn’t really remember, or, if he did, that her few words about a long-ago illness had conveyed what she, at the time, had meant them to: an illness noted, like a milestone on a faraway hillside, a past occurrence she had lived through, an obstacle overcome, a minor skirmish from which she had emerged victorious, a happening that now was of minor consequence to her present day existence. She had long ago determined that nothing from that time was going to define her, keep her captive, in any way be a part of the life she had constructed. But now she knew there were differences.
In the silence, Alan cleared his throat and began to speak:
“It’s come back, hasn’t it?”
She merely looked. Denial or assent didn’t matter. He continued:
“We will beat this,” he said. “I will help you beat this. I will be there for you, with you.”
She knew he was telling a truth, his truth. And she could, in that moment, picture him putting a soft, cool cloth on her chemo-fevered brow, holding the basin so she could release the green bile, putting a tender hand under her back to turn her as lovingly as possible. And she said:
“I don’t want you here. You can do nothing for me.”
“But I can, I will. I want to. I want to be with you.”
She looked at him, hitched herself forward in her chair, and said:
“Why?” she asked, the question scraping out of a mouth still dry.
“I don’t know. Because it’s you. Because I love you. Because it’s what people who love each other do. They don’t leave. They stay.” His words were becoming ragged; she thought she could smell the fear on his breath.
“And?” she said.
“And? What “and?” Isn’t that enough?”
“No,” she said defiantly. “You know there’s more.”
“And you the one with words. Have you lost your words?”
“What about need?” she asked quietly.
“Don’t you need me?” she asked. She thought he was going to cry.
“Of course I need you,” he said. “That goes without saying. You are my life, my breath, my essence, my being.”
She sat quietly and let the words slowly fall, as if they had been carried by bubbles that had, one by one, quietly evaporated.
“That,” she said, “is what I cannot do.”
“What?” he said.
“Be there for you and be there for my cancer.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Cancer,” she said. “Cancer cancer cancer.”
She watched his face go lifeless, as if the words had eaten his blood.
“Don’t,” he said.
“I don’t have enough,” she said, “for you and this disease. I cannot be brave for you. I cannot be thankful to you. And I will not be grateful.” She paused. “Gratitude!” She said it like a curse.
“But what about love?” he said. “Not just the thing, the way we feel, the actions love demands. I know you still feel this way, the way I do, I only have to look at you, look into your eyes. Don’t look away, don’t close your eyes. I don’t care. I know. And your touch, the way I feel when you put your hands on my shoulders from the back, and your hair brushes my neck…”
“All true,” she said. “But only true for now. And not enough.”
“But why would you want to go through this with strangers?”
“Because they’re strangers,” she said. “They are Illness People. I don’t love them. They won’t suck away my energy.”
“No. This is my illness, and I am going to go through it. Alone.” She looked at him and willed him to rise and walk out the door. But he stayed, seated, looking as determined as ever, and as handsome as every memory picture she had stored. She knew she had to forge ahead; that giving him time to speak would be a mistake.
“So go,” she said. “Now. Just put your glass down on the table and walk out the door. Clean. Like a knife. We had what we had, and it was good. But now it’s over.”
“Okay,” he said, and put the glass down and stood. “But let’s just say, hypothetically here, that I do leave, and what I’m doing is leaving you alone, because you asked me to, which won’t, of course, stop me from worrying and loving and wanting you and wanting to see you…” He held the tears back and looked at the glass on the table. “Let’s say all that,” he continued. “And then you go through what you are going to go through, whatever it is, by yourself, operations and radiation and chemo and all the horrible stuff everyone knows too much about these days anyway, and then…”
He stopped again, and, because she thought he was going to start to cry, she jumped in with a word.
“Yes?” she asked.
“So, what if, what if…it’s likely to happen, you know. So. You come through this, and then you’re, you know, well.”
Evelyn withdrew her thoughts. Alan was going to an undared, undeclared forbidden place. There was, for her now, only today, the moment. She knew only that she could only go a little ahead—somewhere where there were decisions to be made about procedures and tests, where a signature on a page was a sign that more pain was around the corner, where the main choice would be whether or not to eat the gelatin with the red dye. She wanted to scream at him to be quiet. Instead she said:
“I don’t like to think that far ahead. You shouldn’t either.”
“But,” he continued. “If you did, if you were…” He sensed that he shouldn’t say the word again, that well might truly end the conversation.
“If you were,” he continued, “then I would be, around, here, and we could, you know…”
“I know what?”
“We could, you know…” He almost stopped; he was very afraid that if he said the words, she would deny him, and then everything would be at an end. The life he had mapped out for them—the words in the lamplight, the poems under her pillow, his worklife sustained because there was love and sustenance and joy, pleasures he had never before known awaiting him at a place he could think of as home—was vanishing, and he had no idea of a future for himself, or his place in any future of any kind.
“Yes?” she said. She knew what he was going to ask. She would have told him, even if he didn’t ask.
“We could get together. Again.”
“No,” she said. “We can’t.”
“Me. I. I can’t.”
“But I can. Enough for both of us, I have, you know this, more feelings, feelings enough to spare, to give you. You’ll be lonely. You’ll need someone. Need me.”
“No,” she said. “I won’t.” And she looked at him with such finality, without a hint of pity for herself or for him, that he finally had to look away. “Because, Alan, you know and I know that whatever happens next, at the end of the next, I will be different. Either I will be dead…” She watched him flinch at the word she had deliberately flung in his direction. “…or I will have come out the other side. And if…yes ‘if” Alan; I don’t believe in Oh, Keep It Positive. If nothing else, this is a time for realism, so If. If I am ‘cured’ or in remission or have a five year reprieve or am completely cancer free, If, I say, then I am going to be a different person. Maybe I will no longer have the capacity for love, for you or anyone. Maybe I will have enough left for myself. Maybe, somewhere inside, somewhere that’s not riddled with cancer—Great phrase, isn’t it? As if, inside, one were full of tiny question marks, or millions of tiny little mouths, all chanting “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” while you’re trying to remember the correct answers to the 17 times tables and recite the Gettysburg Address—But whatever this is, whatever this invasion is doing inside me, to me, this is mine. You are not allowed. And because, whether I want to or not, I will be a different person, this is my decision, my journey. And I’m not coming back. Back here. Back to you.”
She watched as he slumped over, elbows on knees, hands shooting up to hold his head. She stopped herself from reaching out to stroke his hair. No, she thought.
And in that moment she knew she had won. Now she was free, finally, to take a chance, to decide, to fight if she chose, or not. She stood and walked toward the door, passing him as he sat in the chair. Then she opened the door and stood quietly, waiting for him to rise, move past her, and leave. Standing, she embraced her health, her illness, her intelligence, her terror; her capacity for love, her failures, her successes; her view of herself on the precipice of the abyss that was her future, armed with nothing, but standing—one moment terrified, the next, exalted; trembling, but not tearful.
“I don’t need you,” she said.
Robert Moulthrop, a playwright and fiction writer, has presented writing workshops at our Pearl S. Buck Writing Center. His short fiction has been published in Tahoma Literary Review, Reed, Berkeley Fiction Review, Confrontation, and many other journals and magazines. His plays have won awards for writing and performance at the New York International Fringe Festival; received festival production by Short + Sweet Sydney, The Gallery Players, and NYU; and received developmental readings with theaters throughout the United States. He lives and works in New York City.