Chapter 4 of R.M. Dolin’s novel The Dangling Conversation
“I’m seeing someone. Well actually, it’s more accurate to say I’m seeing someone sometimes; at least that’s how it feels. I told you about him, remember? You said it was foolish, too soon, that I wasn’t ready for the complexities of a relationship. Well, I didn’t want to believe you then, and I’m not certain I believe you now, but I get your point and maybe we can agree that’s progress.
His name’s Henry, it’s an old school name for an old school guy, which is why I think you’d like him. We’ve been together just over three months. Mostly it’s going okay but he travels a lot, which means we don’t see each other as often as I’d at least like. So instead, we rely on emails and text messages, with an occasional phone call worked in, which I guess is the crux of our problem. Henry says emails are like a romance from the golden age of love, letters of profound passion that stir the heart and temper the soul. I tell him I need more, not more content, more connection. He counters by saying anticipation is an essential part of passion, but for me, our intervals of silence are hurtful.
“How do you argue when no one’s yelling? Maybe it means we’re not really arguing at all, I don’t know. Perhaps were just having a disagreement, but if history’s any gage, the difference doesn’t much matter. My ex liked to argue, there was never any middle ground with him, no slowly ratcheting up tension. We could be discussing something meaningless like where to eat, and suddenly he’d be screaming in anger, even rage. Guess I’ve been trained that any time two people are not on the same page they’re either arguing, or about to be. Henry and I haven’t been on the same page lately. I don’t think we’re arguing, but at the same time we are, or at least that’s how it feels. It’s probably unfair to even call it a disagreement since we’re not in conflict, we’re just having a misunderstanding; and really, not even that, we just stopped communicating. . .even stopped the anticipation. Our only sounds are those of silence on the edge of ratcheting toward rage.”
“There was a time when Nadia and I stopped talking. We didn’t end our relationship in conflict, we just came to the common conclusion things had run their course. She moved back to France, to the familiar comforts of Versailles, which is just a few kilometers from Paris. I stayed in Washington, no real reason, except no real reason to leave. We intermittently stayed in touch even though we were over. I’m not sure about her, but it was not possible for me to conceive of a world she wasn’t in. So, I’d make a point of seeing her whenever I was in France, which was always a little awkward, especially during the interval when she was married. We’d have diner, take nice walks, have these amazing conversations about life and the philosophy of love and about being happy. We both like poetry and novels and would discuss our favorite authors, but not for the things they wrote, but rather for the lives they lived. Writers are people of passion and I believe we should all strive to be more like them.
“I always anticipated our time together and enjoyed just being with her without any pressure or expectation. But like all things, after a while my visits grew farther apart, until not at all. I could spend hours explaining the dynamics behind that, but it’s long ago ceased to have value, at least for me. I can’t blame her for eventually getting married, just as she can’t blame herself for getting unmarried, but I think she does. Love swirls in a strange dynamic, no one really knows the exact emotional reason why they got married, but everyone can pinpoint with unqualified precision why they got unmarried.
“In all that time, with all our history, I never stopped believing she was in my world, never stopped hoping I was still in hers. Then one day, completely out of nowhere, I’m overcome by this intense need to see her. I can’t explain the catalyst, or how it started, but there it was, this sudden and consuming need to hold her hand and look into her eyes. It had been years since we were last together and so much had transpired, but none of that mattered and I was on a plane to Paris within the week. I didn’t really know what I was hoping for, sometimes you’re not hoping for anything, your soul just says you need to do it. So, I did, I flew to Paris and took the two-hour train to Versailles. I hadn’t been to France in years but remembered my way around pretty good and after several transfers arrived at the Versailles Château Rive Gauche station. From there it’s a short ten-minute walk to her apartment, ten minutes to finalize the justification for my still undefined ‘why’, which I knew I’d be expected to explain at some point.”
“The thing for me, and I’m ashamed to admit this, is you were right. I’m not ashamed to admit you were right, I’m ashamed about what you were right about. This silence between Henry and me blew up two days ago. What’s embarrassing is that the crap I struggle with, is stuff I should have outgrown long ago. Some baggage I guess, is not so easily jettisoned and I’m still carrying crap from before Henry. I’m also discovering that I’m a lot more damaged than previously assumed or should reasonably expect to be at this stage of my life and, well, it’s hard to admit, but it’s caught me unprepared. When I was a girl and my emotions got the better of me, my Dad would calmly sit me down and say, ‘ya know, Mandy, real men, at least us old cowboys, are expected to be strong and stoic, but pioneer women like your Mom, they find ways to be reserved and dignified, devoid of the sort of melodrama you expect from city girls.’
“He was right then, and he’s right now. Yet, there are these emotions I can’t suppress, can’t outrun, they grip me with this suffocating control that won’t let go. There’s nothing new in any of this, I’ve always struggled to find my equilibrium in relationships, never seeming to know the right balance between too much and not enough, which causes me to bounce between the two like a buoy caught in a storm. Maybe the fault lies in allowing myself to love too easily. Maybe I hold back afraid of where love might lead. Maybe I don’t do a good enough job concealing how profoundly overwhelmed I get at times. It’s the same sort of thing that causes me to cry during sad movies, or the way certain songs carry me to sacred places. Maybe I’m just too damn damaged to even know what the hell I’m doing.”
“I certainly didn’t know what the hell I was doing as I stand in Nadia’s doorway, her looking at me, me staring back. It’s as if in one moment we’re complete strangers, and in the next we’ve just finished a delightful lunch, and in between we’re awaiting judgment. We stand there with so much to say, yet devoid of words. There’s a lot that gets said in silence, things one does not dare speak aloud, like ‘sorry’; not for what you’ve done, but for the way things turned out. Sorry for wasting your one precious life in meaningless ways that fettered away all the opportunities for something more that once were right in front of you, there for the taking.
“We stand in silence staring at each other because neither of us is sure what crossing the threshold might mean. If she invites me in, what does it say about everything that’s happened? Would I be stepping into a world that no longer exists, yet so desperately need to be a part of. If I place one foot over that threshold, what’s it saying about us moving into the future? What risks are each of us accepting and what are the consequences? People want love to be about spontaneous impulse based only on the emotions of right now, but as you wind down the path of life, you increasingly understand that love requires so much more, demands at times more than is seemingly possible. If I step through that door and back into her life, what role do I play and what damage might I cause? In that moment, the implications are more than I can even fathom.”
‘Good or bad, my imagination doesn’t limit itself to the constraints of rational thought, obvious deduction, or even constructive behavior. Couple that with what I think is a well-developed sense of perception that’s seldom wrong, keen observational skills, and the struggle to find my place in relationships, and you have a volatile cocktail waiting for a catalyst.
“Henry doesn’t know it, and certainly didn’t intend it, but he provides the catalyst causing my crisis. I don’t like to judge others, after all, there’s plenty of things in my life that wouldn’t hold up under cross examination, but Henry cycles in and out of meaningful contact. He’s not a person prone to emotional-expression and can go days without sending even a small message to let me know we’re still connected; still okay. I don’t think I’m needy, I just need to know we’re okay.
“He’s very reserved and timidly withdrawn from words of tenderness and romance, which is usually not an issue because when we’re together he leaves no doubt as to how he feels. My struggle lies between the intense closeness we share when we’re together and the aimless way I feel so alone when we’re apart, that’s when my need for reassurance escalates to the point of being the centerpiece of my damage, my constant struggle to counter an irrational imagination with logical arguments.
“I have this fear. I recognize it has no basis, but still the same, it roams around inside me ready to ignite. It’s the fear that someone I love, someone like Henry, is about to walk out. I know logically it’s an irrational result of personal experiences and is more about bad choices than people in general, but like my Dad used to say, ‘after burning your hand on a hot pot, regardless of the reason, a cautious person comes to suspect every pot is hot.’”
“It’s easy to confuse fear with awkwardness, which for me grows exponentially every second I remain in the doorway not knowing what to do. If outcomes are the result of careful consideration, I wouldn’t have recklessly leaned over the threshold to kiss her, but I have to know before taking that next step if coming to France was a mistake. Was I expecting too much, asking for the impossible? She turns away so my lips miss hers, but even the touch of her cheek is staggering. I disappointedly conclude that has to be enough. I pose my question in the form of a kiss, and she provides her answer. It’s the simplest most direct form of communication ever devised, and now, there’s just the consequences. Trial lawyers say you should never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to, but that’s why lawyers make lame lovers, too afraid of risk. It’s also why great writers’ live lives of passion. Either way, isn’t knowing better than not knowing, not having to wonder what’s in someone’s heart?
“At least that’s my thinking as I dejectedly pull back, now I know. Now I must accept that my coming to France was asking too much of Nadia, too much from a life that once was. I don’t even know now how I felt at that moment, but the only way I can describe it is as intense loneliness, the saddest of all sounds. I felt myself shrinking like a balloon losing air, who I was just moments ago evaporated, reduced to a shell, a fragment of a dream, a sliver of the hopefulness I carried across the ocean.
“That’s when I felt Nadia’s hand; first one, and then the other. First on my waist, then sliding up my back, and as her hands reach my shoulders, she draws closer while turning her head to face me. The next microsecond is so emblazoned on my soul I still feel the warmth of her breath. Ya see, Nadia has this smile, it’s so slight you might not notice, but so warm and inviting its impact is unforgettable. That’s the smile that gently touches my lips to start a kiss that carries me past her threshold and back into her life like I never left.”
“Sometimes love seems like it’s all about leaving. You’ll say I told you so, but I think about Henry all the time, even when the sounds of his silence echo incessantly. Each day draws me deeper into profound feelings toward him, which only inflates my fear I’ll lose him, which then cascades into irrational thoughts and less than dignified actions I later regret.
“This current fiasco started when his messages grew increasingly far apart, and their word length lessened. This is coupled by an observation that the content, at least in my assessment, is growing less affectionate and more aloof. It’s a pattern he repeats from time to time, and usually I assume it means he’s dealing with something he doesn’t want to share and just needs space. But this time his silence lingers longer than usual, which allows my insecurities time to ferment until they distill away waning attempts at rational reason.
“I counter by pulling back, a childish tit for tat for sure. At first, I rationalize I need to give him space, time to be alone as we all do, time away from the pressures and obligations I sometimes sense overwhelms him in our relationship. And that’s okay, relationships ebb and flow and two people are seldom on the same page at the same time. That’s at least how ‘healthy-me’ assesses his growing aloofness and, so, I back off until such a time as he chooses to re-engage.
“But then he doesn’t. He shows no indication of missing me or a longing to be connected. He doesn’t ask why I became silent, which triggers my irrational imagination to drift toward all the dark reasons why that might be, things like he’s secretly meeting with his ex to discuss reuniting, or realizing the distance between us and our life constraints is too much to overcome, or just not being all that into me anymore, which is the harbor where ‘damaged-me’ drops its anchor.
“After all, I repeatedly argue, if he thinks about me as much as I think about him, how could he not want to reach out to me every day with words of tenderness? How could he not long for any measure of connection? If we’re being honest, the time it takes to construct a message subtracts two minutes from a day filled with over fourteen hundred. So why, I wonder, does he sometimes go multiple days in silence?
“My solution is to end all correspondence. At first, it’s to respect his need for space, then it’s to teach him a lesson; to let him experience what it’s like when someone you have a consuming desire to be engaged with goes silent. But that only lasts a moment before even damaged-me understands that sort of behavior is immature. But still I’m silent, in part because the scant few messages he sends about movies he’s watched or places he’s gone for coffee leave me uninspired. I recognize he’s attempting to reach out in his aloof way, but it doesn’t make me feel he’s ready to engage, at least not at the level I need. . .and that’s when dark thoughts creep in, the darkest being that I’m losing him.”
“The morning after my return to France, I get up in the pre-dawn darkness to await the coming day. There’s so much seriousness in a sunrise that it’s the best time to contemplate life and the consequences of choice. I’ve always felt the need, even the obligation, to greet the sun each morning. After all, she puts so much energy into each spectacular show, we ought to at least take a moment from our mostly meaningless day to watch. . .to demonstrate gratitude.
“From the living room window, I can see Versailles Palace and the marvelous way it awakens. First the grand gold domes start to glisten as warming rays begin their day-long bombardment. Then like a backyard rooster, the sun chases night shadows down the long cobble stone plaza in front of the Palace before disappearing under the gold crested iron gate that remains steadfastly locked to keep away unwanted tourists who are still hours away. In the background, the apartment stereo quietly plays Pachalbel’s Canon, perhaps the most powerfully passionate piece of music ever written. I sit in silhouetted silence sipping on my coffee, content to let the world move on without me. . .at least for as long as the world is willing to allow.
“Then I sense something causing me to turn around and there stands Nadia like a Goddess from a Greek play. She’s wearing a light blue bathrobe that’s unevenly closed with matching slippers, and her disheveled hair displays the aftermath of last night. She’s just standing there, smiling that wonderful smile that seems so slight yet so full of hopefulness and satisfaction, looking even more beautiful than the first time I ever laid eyes on her. And all the angst I’d wrestled with about coming, and the consequences of what it means now that I’m here, softly melt away.”
“For me it’s a lot less simple, this ordeal has forced me to face the fact you were right. I mean I’m not dealing with the trauma of you being right, but what you were right about; that the damage done to me from past relationships has manifested a fear of being alone forever, which is heightened by the irrational thought that even if I find someone incredible to love me, it’s only a matter of time before they unlove me. How does anything in this world define absolute loneliness more than that?
“I’m not proud of damaged-me and the havoc she can cause, which is why I’m committed to seeing her sequestered. I recognize only I can heal myself and with this confession, am taking a necessary step, even if it is incrementally small.
“I accept my silence might have hurt Henry or added unnecessary stress to our relationship, and for that I’m deeply sorry and filled with remorse. What started out as an observation about a silent moment between us, ends up becoming a cataclysmic struggle within myself, revealing things I’d buried deep inside. But now that they’re exposed, I can set about to fix them. . .if nothing else I’m encouraged by the fact that I’m reasonably good at fixing what’s broke.”
“I’ve always believed if you hold close and cherish the broken pieces of your life, they can be reassembled when the time is right. For me its later that evening, a day before Christmas, when we go for a stroll hand-in-hand along the Champs Elysees looking at store front decorations. Occasionally we wander inside, in part to warm up, but also to discover how the inside’s decorated and maybe, just maybe, to find Santa. We stop for a warm drink, coffee or tea, perhaps hot chocolate or apple cider, Nadia’s having a hard time deciding.
“We sit quietly in the back corner of a mostly empty café. She gently places her cup on the table and wraps her delicate fingers around the porcelain surface to embrace its warmth while staring off into the distance. She’s not looking at anything in particular, but lost to thoughts I dare not disturb, even though I can’t help but wonder if they’re about me and the fate of our future. She starts to smile that flat line smile and I know we’re okay, which gives me the freedom to stare back in silence admiring her beauty, while allowing myself to appreciate my unbelievably good fortune. I won’t reveal any details of the rest of my stay, there’s just some things a gentleman never discusses, I will share that we got lost on the remainder of our walk, but we knew that would happen, so it only makes our moments together more magical…..more complete.”
“I sometimes believe in magic and other times in fate. I often wonder if everything is predetermined. I came across this Shakespeare quote the other day, it’s from the character, Cassius, in the play Julius Caesar, where Cassius says, ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ I agree with Shakespeare, our fate is not fixed, we have the power to navigate our destiny, like you did. I just have to hope Henry can be patient while I work on broken-me, just like Nadia was unbelievably patient with you.”