Copyright © 2004 All Rights Reserved
I invited him over to gaze westward in the evening. He calls en route, from his car, at 8:30 to ask, "Do you have anything other than water to drink?"
"OK. I'll pick something up."
"Great. See you soon."
He arrives an hour later. The sun is down. I have changed out of the black dress with the plunging neckline, back into jeans and a t-shirt. I open the door and ask, "Did you walk from downtown?"
"Oh. Did I take a long time?"
"You phoned from your car an hour ago. It's about a 15 minute drive."
"I had to go to Safeway and I phoned my daughter. Sorry."
This is only about the third time he's come over here, but it feels like we've been a couple for years. Not in a good way. He acts as though we are together, involved. I watch him extend his emotional tentacles, wondering if we really should be planning to go away together for the weekend. I keep feeling like I should break up with him.
In bed, after a long bath and no sex, eyes closed, ready for sleep, Seth, says, "You look like a baby sparrow." My mind returns from pre-sleep drifting to another comment Seth made about sparrows, "My favourite bird is the sparrow. We used to climb trees and look in their nests. Unfortunately I had to kill a few of the babies, to see how they worked."
Sparrow, baby sparrow, kill it to see how it works.
On the five hour drive to Coral's Cabins I try to make conversation, thinking how dull he is, how uninteresting his responses feel. Is this intentional, to get me to be quiet? To bore me into silence so he can get on with a solitude he wants?
Unpacking way too much stuff into the one room cabin -- no shelves, no hooks on the wall, no towel racks or drawers -- I say, "I recall you mentioning you have a thing for women in sun-dresses. What's your idea of a sun-dress?"
"Well, it's sleeveless, comes down to about here," Seth motions mid-thigh. "Maybe it's got flowers on it."
I take my flowery sun-dress out of my suitcase and hold it up against myself, smoothing it tight around my waist. I extend one leg, somewhere between an imitation of seduction and an authentic attempt to arouse him.
"Something like this?"
Seth moves close and rubs the fabric between his fingers.
"Yes, like this, but in a lighter fabric." He drops the dress and goes back to his suitcase. I re-fold it and put it back in my suitcase, thinking, what a fucking jackass.
In the two months or so Seth and I have been 'seeing each other' we've only had sex about a half dozen times. I've suggested (somewhat timidly) that things escalate, while attempting to be sensitive to his nervous nature and his performance issue. This little trip away is supposed to include sex. For sure. And it is supposed to be fun. We shook on that over breakfast in Hope.
We wander down to the river. I am ahead of him on the little path. I stop, turn around, and put my hands on his chest. I kiss his face gently. Seth takes my hands off him and pushes me back slightly, "Oh my god, you're a nymphomaniac." I feel foolish. He adds, "I gotta be careful what I wish for."
I would think the guy would be happy that I was attracted to him. I suppose his performance is a problem. I feel responsible to do the turning-him-on thing which has now back-fired -- he perceives me as insatiable, thus creating the opposite to intended result. I know guys tend to think of these things as overwhelmingly their problem, but it surely does put the woman in an awkward place too. How much extra encouragement and attention can be given before it starts to impede progress? How much should the woman say that she doesn't mind, that it doesn't matter that he can't get it up?
The second day of our vacation Seth begins a campaign of saying "Huh?" to every single thing I say.
"Looks like it will stay sunny for a while," I say.
"Looks like it's going to be sunny today," I say louder, changing the comment slightly, to avoid going insane.
"Do I need to speak louder?"
"Do you think your hearing might be going?"
"Is your hearing okay?"
"My hearing is fine," he says in a low voice. "It's just that I'm not listening to you when you speak."
Seth needs to gain control. I figure I'll let him set the pace. The new pace seems to be no talking, certainly no sex. Maybe he's waiting for me to initiate things, but my initiating things seemed to be causing other problems and now the only way he can exhibit power is to withdraw, to stop communicating. We hang around in front of the cabin, going inside from time to time for water, a snack, to change into shorts as it warms up. Seth doesn't look up as I pass by on my way to the cabin. He keeps his head down, concentrating on his book.
I say, "I'm going to move into the sun."
I don't repeat it. He can see what I'm doing. Now when Seth speaks, it is almost inaudible. I strain to catch all the words and fill in ones I can't make out. I stop trying to communicate with him; which seems to be the intended result -- that I shut the fuck up more frequently.
On the first day, at breakfast in Hope, while Seth was in the bathroom, I read the opening pages of the book he'd brought. I hadn't thought to bring a book; I wasn't planning on doing any reading. The book began, first person, with a guy who thinks he's a clever one, at an office party where a young woman does a strip-tease and the clever guy thinks how stupid the woman is, how unnecessary it was for her to take off her clothes, and when she gets them off, she has nothing else to do except put them on, and isn't she a little idiot, and then a couple of ugly women discuss another woman's too short skirt and how tedious all that is because no one wants to put it to the ugly women, but everyone wants to give the one in the short skirt a good pumping, and so the ugly girls are a couple of jack-asses yammering. This sort of thing.
Seth comes out of the cabin with a glass of soda water. He sees I've found a chair.
"Where'd you get that?"
"Off the porch of cabin #4," I say, pointing down the row of empty cabins.
"Thanks a lot for getting me one." Snide. I don't know anyone who speaks like this -- childish and damaged. Unnecessary. The few times I've commented on his remarks he has said, "I'm just kidding. I'm joking. God, you take everything so seriously."
The thing with the chair makes me sad; it was too heavy for me, but rather than ask for his help, I lugged it over exposed roots and uneven grass, happy that I didn't bugger up my back. And then he makes his jab and I feel uneasy and he seems creepy and messed-up.
Seth has been treating me with practiced distance, a retro-reaction he used to control his ex-girlfriend, the woman he's not over yet. Is he treating me like his ex? He admitted he still has a place in his heart for her, after he accidentally used the word 'separated' in a conversation about her. I emailed to ask about this choice of words. Was it a separation? Did he think they'd be getting back together? I thought they were finished. His answer was disturbing. He didn't foresee getting back together with her, and there hadn't been any moves toward reconciliation. Most noticeably, he didn't offer any re-assurance. He seemed to want to create insecurity in me. I asked a few friends, all in happy relationships, if they would continue seeing someone who had given this answer. All five people said they would not.
I go outside and sit across from him. "How's the book?"
"Fine." Seth puts his bare foot about five inches from my face. He smirks. I look at his ugly foot and consider how basic this gesture is.
I haven't had a vacation in ten years. This was supposed to be fun and sex-filled. Seth is a nitwit. A ninny. A total turkey. I am trying not to cry, old pain rushing up through my chest, eyes burning, lips twitching.
"What's wrong?" Seth looks terrified that I might actually say what's wrong. "Are you feeling nostalgic? Does being here remind you of being on vacation with someone else?"
"No. I'm okay. I'm fine," I say, my voice all trembling and weak, wondering if he is feeling nostalgic. I go back inside, leaving him with his book on how to hate women more vindictively and with just enough humour to be able to claim, "I'm kidding, I'm joking, I'm just teasing. You take me too seriously."
I take a jacuzzi bath, which is right in the main room of the cabin. I relax into the bubbles.
When I was planning to break up with him, I googled "withholding emotions" and found some familiar traits -- being late, not calling when he says he'll call, possessiveness and jealousy. Whenever I mention any of the men I've had relationships with, he closes his eyes, puts his fingers in his ears, and makes little baby sounds -- "la-la-la-la-la-la." What does he want? A 45 year old virgin? Even though he didn't want to make any commitment, he was keen for me to behave and re-assure him in a way that would show my commitment to him.
I should have taken heed of the red flags. The first time he came over to my apartment he said, "If I stayed over, we could have coffee in the morning. We don't have to do anything." To which I recall saying, "Really? That sounds pretty boring." I got him out around 1 a.m. thus screwing up my early morning writing routine. This began a pattern of him staying too late, long after I'd asked him to leave. Once, after numerous hints and direct comments, I said to him, "My life will be so much better after you leave this apartment." This was on one of the occasions where there was no sex. A guy should show some fucking gumption and go after hours of being asked to go.
It was odd that he turned up right at the point when I'd decided to stop looking for romance. A new plan -- no men. I spoke out loud, and felt free of the entire idea of romance. Seth's arrival has clarified exactly why it is that I don't want a man in my life. I've put my work aside to give energy to this futility, analyzing the antagonism, wondering when there would be enough evidence to shut the thing down, wondering if anything could be resolved to the point of seriously proceeding with this man.
When we first got together, I showed Seth my paintings, he looked and said nothing about them. Instead, he described the work of a male artist he really likes, someone he knows, who does really good work that he'd love to buy. Listening to my music, he was careful to never show enthusiasm. He's big on both not listening and not remembering things that have been said, and then I have to consider which one he's not been doing: not listening or not remembering. I'm trying to figure out, why it just doesn't seem to go smoothly when it should be quite simple at my age. I'm not even so sure I want an entire boyfriend -- maybe just the good parts -- which you'd think a guy would be into without having to make everything into a problem.
Seth comes into the cabin when the jets go off.
"Perfect timing Raoul!"
"Huh?" he says.
I'm trying to recover, to recall some of the fun we intended to have. Raoul is the name he used in an email when he was trying to get me to go away with him; he promised romance and pleasure as the attentive cabin-boy Raoul. But Seth seems determined to stay disconnected from me. He doesn't notice that the jets are off, that the timer has run out, that he could go into the bathroom and turn the jets back on, rather than me getting out of the tub to turn them on, which I eventually do because he's standing in the middle of the room reading the newspaper, arms spread wide. It seems to be an act, a layering of acts. But can it be an act if it isn't planned? I'm not convinced he knows that what he does and says have meaning.
Once I have the jets going again Seth sees the bubbles building up, he looks like he's being cheated out of something, "Shove over, I'm getting in."
I get the feeling Seth may be reacting to some past experience with his ex, he's at some other point, somewhere they'd been together, and he's re-living it all through me. Perhaps he's wishing he'd dealt with her long before she found a new man -- which Seth didn't even notice, as disconnected as he was. Now denial sits in his head, rubbed raw against his claim that she was his life-partner, sometimes sad and moody, but solidly with him forever. When he told me she needed his re-assurance, I felt superior and independent, not needing any man's re-assurance about anything, and now, here in this isolated place I'm playing a role in a performance starring his failed memory of where he might have gone wrong and where he could have hurt her before she hurt him, and I suppose I'm not simply a witness to his behaviour.
Seth takes the book I'm reading and reads a section of it out loud. He hands it back to me saying, "Let's take turns reading." We pass the book back and forth a few times until Seth starts reading it on his own, in silence. He has taken my solitude, my bath and my book.
"So the romance is over, eh? Bored with me so soon?"
"Huh?" he says, lowering the book.
"It doesn't matter." I say, preferring not to have to repeat an edited version of the end.
Seth steps out of the bathtub, leaving me in dewberry bubbles. Teeth clenched, he repeats my last comment. "It doesn't matter, eh?" Low voice on the verge of losing control. I stay under the foamy mess thinking, if he goes to grab me I'll fucking curse this bath product for making the tub too slippery to punch him in the throat. I'm trying to hide under the dissipating bubbles while he dresses. I hear him pick up the car key. The cabin door slams. I stay still, heart pounding, until the car has gone. The jets turn off. The dewberry bubbles pop as they disappear. I get dressed and start waiting. I sit at the river, eat a sandwich, microwave a mug of milk. How can this be happening? How can I have returned to waiting for another angry man? One who seems unavailable to intimacy, unable to speak about sex without sounding like Beavis or Butthead, another walking-out angry man. Perhaps he's gone off to find a bar. What will happen when he returns? I don't know what methods he employs to manage his anger, but leaving the scene is probably one of them. Leaving also feels like his way of controlling things. Controlling me. And punishment. What is he going to do next? An unaccounted for angry man floating around can pop up at any moment in any state of mind. Drunk? Angrier than when last seen? Or not at all. Maybe he's gone to phone his ex, to plead with her. Or maybe that's what he wants me to think. She's in the picture because Seth keeps putting her there and rubbing my nose in it. One of the only other power moves he can make. Be late, maintain unavailability in body, mind and emotion, and reference the ex in such a way as to intimate a yet-to-be-resolved connection.
I check out the vacant campsite by the river. The place is almost deserted -- just Coral and her husband Lyle and the old guy who seems to be living in his RV. The sky is grey, it's cold and it looks like rain. I re-assess my situation, switching in my mind from being here with a man, to being here alone. What if he doesn't come back? I have all this stuff -- dishes and pans, food and blankets, pillows, Scrabble, ghetto blaster, CDs and tapes, drawing paper, paints. He brought things only for himself. His book, clothes, toiletries. How do I get all this stuff home? How do I get down the road to catch the Greyhound? I can see myself standing at the Esso station, surrounded by my possessions in the rain, truckers going by on this two lane highway through the mountains. I'm eight hours from home by bus.
Coral is on the doorstep, nearly-night sky behind her. "Oh, you are here," she says, frowning. Concern and confusion in her voice. "So you're staying another night?"
She must be wondering why I'm sitting here alone in cabin #6 of Coral's Cabins, the white rental car missing for hours from under the pine tree.
"Didn't... " I can't think of his name. That's encouraging. Seth, right. "Didn't Seth stop to pay you on his way down the driveway?"
"Oh! I'm so sorry! I know he meant to stop in and pay you for tonight. I've got the money right here." I get my purse and open my wallet and produce a fifty as fast as I can. "Sorry Coral," I hand it to her, reaching, arm extended.
"Do you need anything? Fresh towels?" she asks.
"No thanks. We're fine thanks."
Clearly there is no 'we'. Coral disappears between the empty cabins, heading back to their little house near the road. Blue TV light falters across thin curtains.
I'm sure Coral and Lyle think Seth and I have been married for years, the way we have been sitting separately, not talking. In my mind I return to my expectations of this time together. I thought we would be laughing and having sex, talking about how we want things to be between us. The day before we left town, Seth admitted to not being over his ex, but he said he didn't want to lose me. I agreed to give it some more time.
If he comes back mad or drunk, I have a spot picked out down near the river. I doubt he'd find me without the flashlight which neither of us remembered to bring. It's 10:30 when the car pulls in. I'm in bed with my clothes on, in the dark. The large striped bag is packed with everything I need to sleep by the river. He comes in and trips over my shoes. He leaves the light off; I hear him put cans in the fridge and then he sets one on the table.
"Are you awake?"
"Yup." I say clearly. Strong voice.
"Do we still need to pay Coral for tonight?" His voice is more natural than I've ever heard it. All affectation dropped.
"I paid her."
I hear him sit down at the table, I listen for where he puts the car key. There. He takes a sip from the can. Beer? I smell the air and uncross my legs, ready to jump up. I move my hands from across my stomach down to my sides. I can't smell any alcohol. I listen to him taking off his clothes. He climbs into bed. I freeze. He settles in and yawns. My body is rigid. I wait for a few minutes before sliding out and grabbing my sleeping bag and foamy. I lay on the floor near the bathtub.
"You're sleeping on the floor?"
"Are you sure that's where you want to be?"
I get up around 4 a.m. and go down to the river. Huddling under a blanket, I watch the day begin. My body aches, not enough sleep, no coffee, stress. The wind picks up, the roar of the river increases. A crow appears, circling around, cawing, it lands on a tree branch. I want to get home, away from him, as fast as possible. Around 5 a.m. I look up at the cabin and see he's turned on the little Christmas lights I brought. I walk up to the cabin.
"Good morning," he says cheerfully, water boiling on the stove. "Have you had coffee yet?"
He seems to want to forget about yesterday. Maybe this is how he and his ex did it.
"What time do you want to get back to town?" he asks.
"As soon as possible."
Turning onto the highway he says, "I have to phone my mechanic." I'm thinking, oh jeez, here we go. I am not going to say anything today unless I have to. Seth pulls off at Princeton and drives down the main street looking for a pay phone. I spot three, but say nothing. At the end of the town he pulls an awkward u-turn and comes back along the main street. He stops half a block from a phone booth, unbuckles and says, "I'll try not to be too long." Which feels like he's saying, "I'm going to be a long time. Too bad for you." After 15 minutes I decide to find a washroom. He doesn't see me approaching the phone booth. He's rubbing his face, glasses off, involved in some sort of extended-listening experience. He looks totally shocked that I am out of the car. He straightens up, eyes wide; as if I'm going to punch him in the nose. I hold out the car key. He takes it. I motion down the street, towards the hotel, and walk in that direction. It sure didn't look like he was talking to a mechanic. The hotel lobby is locked. I keep walking and find the diner in the next block, use the washroom, and sit down to order breakfast. Seth comes in and says, "You could have told me you were going to the diner." I'm thinking, what? I'm supposed to find the diner and walk back two blocks to tell him that's where I'll be? He didn't tell me where he was going yesterday -- nothing -- and I'm supposed to tell him where I'll be when it's totally obvious? This has more to do with me getting away from him, not sitting in the car as I'd been told to. He lost control. I got away from him. He had to look for me. I didn't ask where he was the night before and I kept it together when he returned to do the thing with the cans -- which turned out to be club soda.
I say, "It's a small town. You found me."
To which he mumbles back, "It's a small town. I found you," like some sort of Rainman character.
After not talking over breakfast I go back to the washroom to brush my teeth. Seth is still at the table when I come out, looking like a guy without a care in the world. I head for the cashier. The waitress has made one check. Damn. I pay it. Outside, Seth glibly says, "Thanks for breakfast." He should have handed me a fiver. I bit my lip and lied, "You're welcome." Thinking, this will all be over soon. Soon. Soon.
On the drive home, five more hours not talking, Seth makes odd little tourist comments, acting like there's nothing wrong. Once we get past Hope he tunes in Rock 101 on the radio. He taps the steering wheel and hums along to Tom Petty and Lou Reed, turning down the ads. We're into the next super-set, all male vocals until Heart comes on doing Barracuda. Seth turns the volume down. Volume back up for Stairway To Heaven. Maybe he doesn't like Heart, or women vocalists. Maybe he doesn't like women. Niggling turns to gnawing. I mean, it's no big deal if you don't like Heart, but somehow it seems like a footnote to this holiday. In fact, all along things have been exceedingly clear, how his behaviour and his intentions impact me. I don't think he consciously plans what he does or says. He isn't entirely aware of himself. He doesn't have a plan for how to manipulate me. It's an inherent way of operating. He's just going with the flow.
In front of my building, I unload my boxes and bags and pile them outside the door. Seth says, "You don't need any help carrying these upstairs, right?"
Seth is out of the car, unlocking the trunk. He takes my two canvas and cardboard suitcases out and stands on the sidewalk. I walk up to him and grab the handles. "Good-bye."
He tightens his grip. "Huh?"
Bent forward, suspended in reaching, slivers of pain in my lower back. I tug and he lets go.
At home I google "Whatever" -- the book that Seth read, cover to cover, while we were together. From Publishers Weekly "The unnamed narrator of Houellebecq's novel is Marcuse's one-dimensional man. A single, 30-year-old computer engineer in Paris with no sex life, he suffers from a chronic passivity that, in Houellebecq's view, is characteristic of Generation X. He buys, but doesn't take joy in any of the things he possesses. He has acquaintances, but no friends. In his off hours he writes dialogues featuring an assortment of barnyard animals. When his company sends him and a colleague, Bernard, out to Rouen and La Roche-sur-Yon to consult on software, nothing much gets done. In Rouen he suffers from heart problems. Since Bernard visits him in the hospital, a bond develops between them. Bernard, cursed with a repulsive appearance and a horny disposition, makes obnoxious advances to every woman he sees and is predictably rejected. Sexual deprivation is the atmosphere in which these men exist. That both men see women only in terms of their sexual features makes their impotence even more pathetic. After breaking up with his last girlfriend two years ago, the narrator has withdrawn from the romantic arena. And yet he has developed an intricate and mean-spirited, if ill-defined, theory of sexual hierarchy. The loose narrative condenses to an action sequence when the narrator tries to get Bernard to murder a woman with a steak knife, but the incident is gratuitous. In the end, Houellebecq displays none of the novelist's eye for detail and, further, defaults on the development of a vital main character, who might have connected this series of threadbare incidents into an interesting social comment."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jean Smith is the singer in the literary rock duo Mecca Normal, and the author of three novels. She lives in Vancouver, Canada where she is working on her fourth novel -- F.L.O.W. vs. P.L.A.N. The Mecca Normal website features the band's touring art exhibit and lecture series "How Art & Music Can Change the World".