He used to ask me ‘what are you thinking about?’, or ‘why are you so quiet?’ and I had no idea what to answer, because I couldn’t pick out anything from the flood of thoughts that were rolling across my mind. I couldn’t even say now what I was thinking about back then, but I can say why I was so quiet. First of all because I wasn’t used to him. I know he didn’t understand that and I know it could sound insignificant to anybody, or at least not so important as to make communication impossible between two people. But I’d say it was.
I’d been used for a year and a half to someone who could hurt me sometimes very much and now I found someone who was easily hurt himself. I’d been free to say and do whatever I felt, because I knew Daniel had no sore spots, but I could lose Matthew now any time with a rash word. He was an unexplored territory. I didn’t know him and didn’t know what can hurt him and what can soothe him. Of course, bad words will hurt and warm words will make one happy. But there’s such a vast range between these two clear-cut poles.I wanted him to feel secure with me, to feel that he can talk to me about anything, with no reservations or suspicions. He had seen in me from the beginning the self-confident person, but I wasn’t really like that and I wanted him to see me as I was, because – I thought – the self-confidence he saw in me might make him uneasy. And most of all I needed us to talk as equals, rather than strong guy- weak guy.
Not being used to him and not knowing him were the most important reasons why I was quiet. But there were other, smalle reasons, too, that kind of silly things that hinder someone from being oneself. He lived in a world of his own, abstract and much too theoretical, I’d say artificial, so that every time I said something I got the feeling that I talked and, worse than that, I acted, like a silly doll. Compared to his sophisticated way of talking, my words sounded to me – and maybe actually were – unrefined, like any teenager taken by surprise. And that was one more reason for me to be quiet: I was always afraid I’d be misunderstood and I’d fail to get across what I meant.
I still remember with a pang a conversation we had about a film, can’t remember its name. He’d liked it very much, I hadn’t. He explained to me, in his carefully chosen words, the significance of the film and then I was all the surer I didn’t like it. I tried to give him my side of it; for me it was very clear, but the words simply wouldn’t flow; they stumbled, and when they did come out they looked pathetic, crumpled and colourless like old clothes. I just wanted to tell him that the film had come over to me more like a televised theatre play, and that my expectations, knowing I was watching a film, were different, but the moment I tried to articulate this I realised I sounded like a cutie who’s fond of the Saturday night series.
And besides, he would always complicate things and make me feel a simpleton again. He’d ask me so many times ‘What are you thinking about?’, or ‘A penny for your thoughts’, when in fact there was nothing particular I was thinking about, I was maybe just looking around, or taking in what I was being told. But the moment he asked me concerned what I was worrying about, I started to have the feeling that I did have something on my mind, so I went on to find what it was. Of course I couldn’t find it, since there was nothing. And then I’d get anxious at not finding anything to say, I wished I was truly sad so I could tell him why I was. I didn’t want to be quiet, because I somehow felt that it could lead to misconceptions, that it wasn’t putting me in the best light, and that he’d think I was rigid, or that I didn’t trust him, or that I simply couldn’t voice my thoughts. I was also depressed seeing that we were on different wavelengths and that things were getting absurd: he had seen in me the confident princess at first, then a melancholy girl who was hurt, when in fact I was just baffled by the mismatches between us. I felt horribly helpless, and stupidly stiff, as if I was stuck in mire.
By the way, his nice words ‘a penny for your thoughts’ are just an expression in English. I’d thought he’d invented it with creativity and affection for me. I smiled bitterly when I read this the other day.
Matthew was the first in my life who didn’t believe in me and wasn’t interested in believing either, and I suspect this stupefied me. I am telling him now, in retrospect, that I was the strong person that he thought I was at the beginning, if not all so self-confident. The problem was that he stopped seeing this in me, which prompted me to become the low-key presence that held me captive. I don’t mean switching roles depending on who I’m talking to, although I think that’s precisely what happens, up to an extent, to people in general, not just to me. Haven’t you noticed that you see yourself in a different way with different people? That’s because of what the interlocutor inspires you to be, but also because of what you know or think you represent to them. Or sometimes just by contrast with them. They sort of prompt you to step into a role they unknowingly assign to you.
Who are we, anyway? Every time we’re different if we’re standing in front of someone else. Have you never felt that you are confident before a less confident person, that you’re insolent and eccentric before someone who’s more old-fashioned than you, that you’re more indifferent, or more sensitive by contrast with your partner? That you’re better, or worse, that you’re subtler or shallower? To make things even more complicated, there comes the whole train of past experiences to add to this. After a close relationship with someone who prompted you to be spontaneous you probably find it difficult to choose your words tactfully. If your previous role was that of the compromising partner, you will probably be at a loss taking the lead in the next relationship.
Or look at it the other way round: not what you have been, but what you have missed.In a relationship you miss being understood when you can’t find your words. If someone comes along who needs no explanations but just gives you the feeling they support you – you fall in their arms! If the other partner did not believe in you, or made you feel small, there’s a good chance that you will go for the next person who kneels down to you, no matter what other qualities they might – or might not – have.
So coming back to my question, to my dilemma, to my quest: who are we anyway? Now we’re strong, then we’re weak, now we’re spontaneous, next we’re trying to be tactful, now we need understanding, next we need to be shown the way… Of course, something will define us, something that enables us to decide who makes us feel genuine and who makes us feel phony. But were someone to ask me what kind of person I am, to be honest I’d be at a loss. Am I more like who I was with Daniel? Or maybe more like who I was with Matthew? Am I more the crazy girl having a row with my boyfriend in a park at ten o’clock at night as I did with Daniel? Or maybe am I really the simplistic, uncommunicative girl stuck with ghosts of the past that I acted out with Matthew? Or finally am I maybe the no-nonsense young woman that George worships?
Unfortunately, from the very beginning Matthew and I had seen something phony in each other. You know the result. But I can’t help thinking how much he would have found in me of what he was aching for. Looking on me differently would have simply done the trick.
Enough about Matthew now. But then there’s not much else to write about, because the rest isn’t big deal. The same days, which kind of repeat themselves. Today it’s one year since Daniel and I have become best pals. Strange, how days come back but not their moments! And what is left of what was once real, present, palpable: flashes of glances and of smiles, fragments of voices and of music, and corners of rooms, stairs, or fields!
She put the envelope back into the drawer. Why hadn’t she sent out this letter? She and Lou, her best friend, had been too busy to meet in the past few months, so they came up with the idea of writing to each other, even though they lived a 10-minutes’ walk apart. With this letter she had made the breakthrough of being able to put some of it into words, at long last, six months after Matthew was gone.
One day George had found her writing this letter and she didn’t really care to hide it. George read it too and she was glad to see he was curious to do it, eager as she was to give him food for thought, to surprise him with what lay under the surface of her behaviour. She hadn’t felt this need of displaying herself before, like some didactic material. But now it was either that George was making rather slow progress in getting to know her, or that her patience was limited. Or maybe both.
With George everything went with a flawless simplicity, all the questions and answers were related to what could be seen in the town, at home, at the theatre or at the cinema; they hadn’t come to private subjects yet, not even to hints, and she wanted to push things a bit. She was mostly dissatisfied that when she wanted to break the ice and talk about more serious, private things, it sounded to her pretentious or condescending, like an old knowing man’s pat on a young novice’s shoulder. So she wished she could skip this adjustment stage as briskly as possible. She was not used to kissing a boy but keeping the relationship with him within matter-of-fact boundaries. These two things mixed up in her mind a little, namely when she was in love she wanted to have a bosom friend in that lover. Now she wanted to be in love with George (since she went for walks with him) and could not see how she could fall in love with him without feeling that he was very close; that he knew her problems, like a competent doctor, concerned about her condition. She could hardly wait until George played that role, until he knew her well, which meant that he appreciated her good sides and had understanding for her faults. She admitted that that was what she wanted, to have her strengths appreciated and her weaknesses understood and if possible ignored, but she also found it natural to be so, since everyone else judged one harshly, so friends were there to be more tolerant.
She had grown fond of George, although she could not say exactly why, how or since when. If she had searched and analysed, she might have concluded that it had all started once they had got back from the seaside, as soon as they were on the train. As if the start shot had been fired ‘run!’ and she, docile, had started to run. She had been indeed docile to the situation, because from the moment the train had left, it all went under the motto ‘she has a steady boyfriend’, therefore she was supposed to feel what was normally felt under such circumstances. It was natural for her to think about him, and feel (almost) happy. And then it made perfect sense, she’d met him by the sea and now she was going away from the sea and from him, so it was perfectly natural to think about him serene and happy, just as she had felt about Daniel two years before. The happiness about not being lonely anymore and about the whole thing lasting past a summer holiday.
Now that she had this George it was natural for her to say to herself ‘This time yesterday we were lying on the beach’, or to find that she was missing him a bit. O yes, sure, all this until she met him again. George had been so gentle to her and had kept cheering her up and pleasing her in all possible ways, he was such a nice guy, who on top of it all was in love with her and not with someone else – which made her heart beat with thankfulness.
He made her a proposal of marriage a few days after they met again in Bucharest. And wasn’t joking. She took it with more lucidity and detachment than she would have liked to be at such a moment. It was her first time being asked, and it was so romantic too – just two weeks after they’d first met! It looked like one of those flash love stories in books (it was only in books that such a thing lasted) and she only smiled amused. But what could she do, if that was what all that she felt! She was amused by this George with this flash love of his, but of course it was worth taking note that it was a warm, friendly amusement, no trace of sarcasm or mockery. Of course she felt pleased and almost rehabilitated after the gloom of the past months, but all this couldn’t stop her being fully aware that she was not going to get married, in any case not with George.
Of course, life with him was tempting like a bakery shop window. His well-off, well-connected family always found ways of procuring veal, or foreign chocolate, or other goodies without seeming to count the money or queue up for them; the fridge was always full and there was never the feeling that there would be an end to it. They also lived in a handsome, roomy flat in the nicest area of the town, George had been right boasting about it, with central heating, which meant it was always warm without any disturbing smell of gas, without anyone having to carry wood or oil canisters from some dark and cold cellar, getting smeared in the process, as her parents had to, and it also meant that she could fill up the whole bathtub with hot water, without fearing that the heater might run out of water. The living had a real couch, set opposite a large, colour TV, which stood on a video-player, and there were lots and lots of video tapes of great films. Nobody else she knew had a colour TV AND a whole collection of video tapes. She enjoyed being there, in their flat. It was a comfortable, almost cosy place which she would have liked to call ‘home’. Her own home felt cold and draughty, food and heat were rationed, so taking one single bit would make a difference to the whole countdown. A sense of meagreness and bare adequacy seemed to be blowing in through every tiny but ruthless cranny.
She had told George too, in the most natural way, that she was not going to get marrried to him. She’d probably got used to the thought that George could take the truth, no matter what it was. He had got her out of her den and in the process got her to see that her options were open, so she was looking quite feverishly forward to a bright future. Yes, she was going to meet many others, would love and would be loved, she wouldn’t stop by him and in this way forgo all that by getting married to George – and she didn’t even feel sorry about it.
“If I was 25 or even older, I’d marry you, George, but I can’t do that with 19!” she serenely declared.
“OK, but I can wait!”
She smiled. That’s not what she’d meant. She pictured herself with 25 more or less experienced, having gone through thick and thin, weary, with her curiosity and need for excitement appeased, and at that stage George would have made the perfect companion. Someone kind, who pleased you, who needed you and quite importantly someone who could offer a simple, quiet and straight life. Someone you’d be fond of, but not passionately love. Something moderate and peaceful. A safe, welcoming and solid home. That was her picture of marriage, or at least of a marriage with George.
But if she saw marriage as anything but the passion of a great love, she would not have it in her life for now. She needed, before getting married, a certain satiety, maybe even weariness, that time and experience give one. George offered the safe and homely shelter, but she did not need that as yet.
And still, recalling the whole story, she could not say why the overall impression she had made was that she would be considering it. She could not remember wavering, not at first. It was only later that she did waver, because time was flying by and she was losing with it the detachment she had had at the start.
It was all due to her inborn docility, her drive to be always in line with the sense that the situation seemed to be making. And unawares the situation had drifted to the sense that he had proposed to her and she was thinking about it. So she did start “thinking about it”. Soon she felt that it was very difficult to weigh the pros and cons, because the balance was almost always even. Or if it tended to tilt to one side slightly, there quickly came up some detail that restored the balance. How was she supposed to make a decision?
Her life was changing. Before they met each other, she used to spend her afternoons at home on her own or with Lou. Now there was George who would pick her up with his car and they would go to the cinema, or even to a restaurant, as on the day when they wanted to celebrate a full month since they’d met. Sometimes he came unexpectedly to her place early in the morning to pick her up and drive her somewhere, as he knew she had an important appointment and wanted to spare her the time and ordeal of taking the busses or trams through the town. Sometimes in the evenings they took long walks in the posh woods on the outskirts of the town, where the big party bosses or other people with connections would have steaks and pepsi at the Party’s restaurant. Or they would often stroll around his chic neighbourhood, just opposite the nicest park in the whole city, along the broad boulevard lined up with old limetrees and aristocratic villas – here lived one minister, there a state secretary, over there an acclaimed poet of the court… They sometimes went into the park, where ancient trees cast their shadow over well-proportioned alleys, no noise, no working-class boisterous kids, no begging gypsies, no gangs of slovenly, mean-looking guys. One could almost think they were in a normal world, breathing true air, living in a life-friendly environment.
Very often they would end their walks at his place, so he could take the car and drive her home, and then his father asked her to come in with lots and lots of kind words, not letting her any chance to say no, and had her sit down at the table to have supper with them or on the couch to watch some American film on their huge colour TV, and she could find no way out but she was embarrassed at the importance she was given, when she was actually just George’s girlfriend. It was all too pleasant – being in that comfortable, bright flat, shaded by the old lime trees and chestnut trees of the broad boulevard, picking yummy hard-to-get goodies from the plates, watching some video film that others couldn’t see. There it was, their world, the world of people like George’s father (a well-established surgeon) and of young people like George himself, who was pals with the son of the foreign affairs minister, knew an actress and singer their age who had played in a successful film about high-school leavers just the year before, and many other sons and daughters with resonant family names. And when she was sitting in that flat on that boulevard, in the heart of that district, it felt like she was becoming part of it too, and it was good, simply because life was comfy like the armchair where she was sitting now, watching (colour) TV. In George’s world everything was easier to do, you could get things with less strain, and even if such trump cards were not in her possession, just being there gave her some reassurance. Of course George never missed an opportunity to hint to her that all these things could belong to her too, as when she cried “what a nice thing you have!” he would always correct her “WE have”, including her in this we with a meaningful look in his eyes.
He had even started making future plans in the name of the same we, and she was finding it harder and harder to keep correcting his pronouns, to keep suggesting that she had not made yet any decision on his proposal. That was also because the plans sounded so good, that it was just nice to indulge herself for a few moments in the pleasant activity of listening to these plans, holding on to the awareness that she should be getting back to reality in the next second. That is how, long before any decision was actually made, they both agreed that IF they should get married, they should do it the following summer; and, of course, IF they should get married, they would live at her place – or at his? … but in any case if they should get married they would not have children before she graduated… And so on and so forth. They went so far as to make an estimate of the incomes they would have and even expense lists: this much for petrol (“are you nuts, so much for petrol when you can do some walking too, or you’ll get a paunch by the time you’re 30!”) – this much for the household, this much for holidays. They had even decided who to invite to the wedding and one day they even picked the wedding dress from a magazine.
All this, of course, provided she should decide to say “yes”…