a short story by Jason Gould
Every time I see deaf people talking with their hands, I am reminded of the silent world in which Angela and I fought on our final evening together. To have used our voices, however softly, would've been too personal; too personal by far. Had we been adepts in the art of argument, then I'm sure our throats would have been put to fuller effect; but ours was a marriage in which quarrels were scarce, and glibness rife. Thinking back, it was probably this aspect of our relationship that prompted my fling, that had me straying from our bed again and again, despite promising myself not to. Affairs are like that - addictive. To begin with it's physical; then, as time passes and the touch that had once been electric gradually numbs, the secrecy takes over - the countryside hotels, the knowing glances, the fierce afternoons of cigarettes and sweat.
'Why are you crying?' Angela asked, her gaze turning from the television.
I touched my face, and my fingers came away wet. I often speculate, now I have so much spare time, on what provoked my eyes into betraying me that night. It must have had something to do with Angela's presence. Was it the earnest way she followed even the most mundane of soap operas? Perhaps her sorrowful eyes and uncontrollable hair? Her refusal to make love with the light on? Her tears at charity appeals and disturbing news items? The list is infinite; believe me I have literally reams and reams of possibilities, yet all they are - all they add up to when spoken or dreamed or scribbled on bus tickets - is words. I have all these words, but nothing concrete.
'Why are you crying?' she repeated, switching off the television and crossing to where I sat. I looked at her thin legs and freckled arms, her eyes that turn puffy in winter and romantic in spring.
I got up, went into the kitchen and doused myself with water from the cold tap. Angela followed me, keen to learn the source of my unease. I turned my back on her, electing to look out at the garden instead. On the opposite side of the window, dusk had had its frailty fattened by darkness. I squinted, leaning forward slightly. I wished I could see things beyond that glass; things that might navigate our lives and assume responsibility for our actions. But the only thing I could see was my reflection, and hers.
'Are you going to tell me why you're crying?' she said.
I thought she would have sensed it by that point; like when we used to guess each other's dreams in the morning or start the same sentence simultaneously. Sometimes, after a half-day between the sheets in a rural tavern, I would step into the lounge and expect her to know instinctively where I'd been. Not by a speck of lipstick or sniff of scent - I was never that stupid - but by a look on my face, as if every kiss it'd taken over the past four hours had left its mark.
'I've been seeing someone...' I said.
'I've been seeing someone...a woman.' I went on to tell her about childish infatuation, about vows that had withered in the heat of the moment and how shame had made an insomniac of me. I didn't want to be there, in that kitchen, with that person. But I was. I was there with my arms dangling and my palms clammy, and nothing I could do would alter what had been done, nothing I could say undo what I'd said.
Once she'd realised it wasn't a joke, she gently began to shake. Tremors consumed her, and she raised her fists to strike me. Without speaking, she battered my chest with her hands - hands I'd had touch me a thousand times in love but never in violence. Her campaign transferred to my face and I pushed her away. She stumbled back, putting an arm out to steady herself, and knocked a glass from the counter-top. It landed in the sink but didn't smash.
'She means nothing to me,' I said, aware of how embarrassing I sounded. 'I only love you.'
My words fell on deaf ears. I'd removed her tongue and her eardrums with one quick blow. How glorious I should've felt.
Backed into a corner, I tried to defend myself. More and more of her punches found their target; feeble punches that couldn't bruise nor even sting. Through a tangle of arms I noticed the magnets on the fridge. I remembered how we'd stuck the first one there for a laugh, and how their family had enlarged over the ensuing months. I had to remove them; they couldn't stay when so much else was going. I started to slide the first Bart Simpson from its place, but failed when Angela's hand struck my left eye. I swung my fist in her general direction and it met with her cheek-bone. She collapsed. Part of my stomach leapt.
Nursing my injured vision, I peered around the kitchen. Angela was lying on the floor, holding her head and sobbing into the linoleum. Her kimono had ridden-up and I could see blonde hairs protruding from her underwear. Her legs were white; too white, and her belly - although at this moment covered - always smelt like mown grass. We hadn't made love for longer than six months (I can't remember the last time; probably a Christmas Eve or half-drunken effort involving scant sex but plenty of kissing).
That was her thing, you see - kissing. She liked it more than anything else, even penetration after weeks and weeks of abstinence. When we first met we used to kiss all night and long into the following morning, and by the time the sun rose I would've forgotten the flavour of my own saliva and know only that of ours mixed. We'd kiss anywhere; on trains, on rooftops, in unlit bedrooms at dinner parties with glasses tinkling downstairs...
Angela loved kissing; and sunsets and silk, and rose petals on her breasts.
We fucked silently in Rowdean forest. To have used our voices would've spoiled the romance; spoiled it entirely. Had Debbie and I been equipped with wider vocabularies then I'm sure we would've insulted each other nobly; but our penchant for swearing during sex had died months ago, alongside spitting.
I looked up and allowed my gaze to linger over Debbie's nakedness; her goose-pimpled abdomen, her pierced nipples, slender neck and crusted nose ring. I climaxed when my eyes reached hers, and her body felt momentarily repulsive in the seconds immediately after. She rolled off and lay beside me, her back crushing leaves.
It was those shadowy eyes that had first waylaid me into her arms one evening in Bristol. I'd been sitting at the hotel bar sipping Martini late one afternoon, watching the hookers and businessmen plying their trade, when she'd stepped out before a row of upturned spirit bottles. Her eyes were dark and her mouth was purple. Her breath smelt meaty, as if she'd dined on pork and hadn't bothered prising the tufts from her teeth. She had no real nails, but several sets of false ones which she carried in her handbag and swapped with her mood.
I remember how she threw smiles in my direction for the best part of an hour, before coming across to chat.
It was her shift, she said.
Just a temporary job, she said. Until something better.
And lonely are the young of Bristol, she said.
I finish at eleven, she said.
You can look into my eyes when you come, she said.
I had stacks of excuses but they were slipping rapidly.
She led me to her room and I followed like a dog abandoned by its mistress. I think she was proud to be carefree and friendless, a person for which there was no other hour save the one currently occupied. I knew no one remotely similar. Clearly, I was smitten. But I was unsure too. She wriggled out of her skirt and knickers ten yards from her door and my uncertainty melted, along with my knees.
The room smelt meaty like its owner, and unaired. Self-consciously, I stripped and laid on the bed. Not many people have seen me naked; not as an adult anyway. I sucked in my paunch.
For a minute she did nothing but grab welts of my flesh - bicep; gut; inner leg - and twist them between forefinger and thumb. I complained and she got up and walked to the bathroom. I heard taps being swivelled and water clattering, then a splash as some object was repeatedly dipped. Her bare feet slapped on the canvas as she busied herself back and forth. When she returned to the bedroom she was carrying four sodden towels, two draped over each arm. These she rolled lengthways and twisted into ropes. After knotting one towel around each of my wrists and ankles, she stood back in admiration. My circulation slowed, and my feet and hands became paler than ever before. Unnerved, I began showing signs of concern; from the shower she retrieved a water-logged flannel, which, after rubbing it briefly over her dry sex, she pushed completely into my mouth and trapped there with tape.
That was Debbie's thing, you see - unlubricated sex. Sometimes we could be joined at the hip ten or fifteen seconds after entering a hotel room; me red, her redder. We could easily hurt each other if we tried, and once, in a guest-house near Blackpool, we left the sheets bloodied - not copiously, but enough to warrant pyjamas with Angela.
Debbie loved unlubricated sex; and scabs, and scratches, and bitten breasts.
'So, where is she now?'
'When I left she was lying on the kitchen floor. She'll probably have gone to bed, or maybe her mother's. What time is it?'
Debbie put on her wristwatch - the only item of jewellery she ever removes. I pulled my shirt back on, rubbing my neck where, in uncharacteristic agreement, I'd permitted her to chew minutes earlier. A breeze shuffled through Rowdean's trees. It's never cold until after your orgasm, then adult passions become infantile fears and you start hankering after pillows and duvets.
'Quarter to one,' she replied, squeezing into her leather skirt and bra-top.
She saw me shiver, and said, 'You're the one who wanted to come out here tonight. I was all right in front of the television.'
'Well...' I said, starting towards the car, 'I had to get out of the house. She went crazy. I've never seen her like that. She's usually so placid.'
We hurried through the forest towards the road. Apart from the crunch of our footsteps, the woods were silent. I felt as if we'd just put the finishing touches to a grave, and were now going home to hose the ceiling and burn our clothes. It's the guilt that makes you feel that way; being somewhere you know you shouldn't, with someone forbidden, playing with bodies.
In the car, Debbie flicked the heater to hot. 'Do you still want me to talk to her?' she asked.
'Last week, you said you wanted to tell your wife about us...You said it might help if I spoke to her.'
I recalled the exchange with painful irony. Lying across an unmade bed with her grunts still echoing in my ears, I'd announced my intentions to stop seeing Debbie and to retract the previous eighteen months of my life. Distorted though it may seem, in that crazy moment I'd even considered confessing to Angela; relying on the mettle of our marriage to pull me through this disloyal period. Perhaps I'd been more serious than I'd thought.
'You probably couldn't do more harm,' I said. Angela had a temper, but pride would stop her from doing anything rash towards Debbie. 'Shall we go now?' I asked.
'And what do I say to her?' she asked, scraping mud from her stilettos.
'Tell her the truth about us.'
'That it means nothing.'
She mulled this over for a second. 'Well it certainly isn't love. There's no love to be given by people like us.'
'True,' I said. 'Very true.'
I fired the engine and cancelled the dimness with the lights. Then, I drove my lover to my house, telling her - and myself - that there was nothing between us and nothing to lose, yet knowing that a love for someone as flippant as Debbie - a cavalier, unreturned love - is the greatest love you can bestow upon anyone, or hope to have flung at yourself.
We'd moved to the country to escape people, to be by ourselves. It seemed as if there was always someone beside you in the city, an extra shadow that refused to dissolve regardless of time. I'd also hoped, in vain so it transpired, that a move would subvert Angela's disappointment over our lack of children; stop the comments that had her stony-faced in company and melancholic later.
'It's just down here,' I told Debbie as we swerved onto a dirt-track.
We'd barely spoken for the entire journey; no doubt Debbie was contemplating whether she really wanted to meet one of her boyfriends' wives at two in the morning. I'm not sure what I'd hoped to achieve; perhaps I thought that seeing her replacement would reassure Angela that the affair had been nothing more than casual. Then again, the knowledge of who I'd chosen to be casual with would probably sprinkle salt into the wound which had so recently been opened. In all honesty I didn't want to go home on my own; the prospect of shattered photographs and shredded suits didn't appeal to me, especially in the middle of the night.
'I'm not sure about this,' Debbie said as the house lights grew nearer.
'It'll be okay,' I replied. 'Just tell her the truth about us, and I might have a chance of...' I shrugged. 'Just tell her the truth; tell her it's over.'
'What if she gets violent? I can't afford to be disfigured. I can't be sitting around for a month or two waiting for black eyes to heal.'
'That's why I'll stay in the car.'
She jerked her head round and faced me for the first time since leaving Rowdean. 'You're not coming in with me?'
'If I come in she will get angry - towards me, not you. If you go in alone, she won't.'
Despite her mascara, her skin had flushed quite pale. I'd never seen her apprehensive before, only confident. When she took me in her embrace, confident. When she stripped linen from beds and tied our torsos together, confident. When she stepped from my arms into those of another, confident. Always confident. Never scared.
As we entered the drive, I saw the living-room curtain flick aside and a silhouette glance out. It appeared that Angela had waited up, crying into the telephone or perhaps planning divorce. The curtain fell back. I waited for the front door to open and her to rush out (we used to have a dog; since it died she'd made a habit of greeting me home, in lieu of Suzy and her manic tail). The door stayed shut. Nevertheless, at least she was home, and healthy. She was level-headed, but that hadn't stopped me from picturing her wrists being siphoned or the medicine box ransacked.
Debbie didn't shift from the passenger seat. She just sat there looking at the fountain of Eros. I often wonder if she experienced regret at that moment, for herself and the lifestyle she led; or if she hated what she saw, despised our pebble-dashed brickwork and latticed windows, our garden furniture stacked away for the oncoming winter.
'Look,' I said, reaching my arm around her shoulder, 'go in and do as we agreed. If there's any trouble - and I'm certain there won't be - but if there is, I'll be right here. Introduce yourself; say why you've come and how upset you are, and then simply leave. You'll be in and out in a couple of minutes. I'll drive you home afterwards. Okay?'
Her eyes held everything. This wasn't a situation earmarked with the simplicity of her other relationships; this was complex. Stroking Debbie's neck, I leaned over and kissed her lips - the only non-sexual kiss we'd ever shared.
She opened the door, stepped out onto the concrete and slowly walked to the porch, peering back as she went. Sitting behind that wheel, seeing her throw one final glance over her shoulder, ring our bell and disappear inside with my confused wife, was certainly the hardest point in thirty-seven years. The world paused and held its breath, unable to continue its business until she'd again stepped out into the night. It is still, now, waiting for that exhalation to arrive.
The car's clock read two forty five a.m. A haunted soul announced his problems to night owls and truckers on a radio phone-in. I turned it off when his wife left him twice in six months, once for his brother and once for his friend. Other people's troubles seemed trivial compared to my own.
Debbie had been inside for almost half an hour; thirty whole minutes. There'd been no noise, no movement. Just me, the house, and the screen that separated us. I'd given up trying to guess what they were saying to each other; whether their pitch was harsh or calm; whether they patched at my future or tore it to bits. What could they be talking about in there? Did Angela demand explicit descriptions of our meetings? Did she ask if I'd ever pledged Debbie my love? Did she want places, dates, times?
I considered calling the home telephone from my mobile. It would be less fraught than seeing Angela in person. Obviously she knew I was waiting in the car, but it would have been too much to see her and Debbie standing side by side; too much like being judged.
A couple of minutes before three a.m. all of the lights in the house dimmed; it was only a minor power cut, but noticeable nonetheless. I hadn't realised it earlier, possibly due to the uniqueness of the evening, but in my absence Angela had lit every light on each of the three floors. They held their output low for about thirty seconds, then - as if the cause of their failing had passed - shone again at full force. Bright - low - bright. Probably just an electricity surge; two million people all getting up and visiting the toilet at the same time.
At three fifteen, I locked the car and wandered over to the house. The curtains were closed. I pressed my face up against the moist window, trying to distinguish shapes or figures through the orange fabric. I crept around to the rear and spied into the kitchen. There was no one inside. The spot on the floor where I'd left Angela dazed and teary caught my attention, as did the scattered fridge magnets and the tumbler still lying in the sink. Through the glass, I could hear the strip lights buzzing, even though the place could well have been soundproof. It disturbed me, as if I were peeping on something I wasn't meant to. The room looked out of bounds, and all the more intriguing for it - like those areas in museums which are closed to the public.
I unlocked the back door as quietly as possible. My intention was to eavesdrop on their conversation without making myself visible. Closing the door, I crossed to a passage which connects the kitchen to the living-room. All this made me feel like a burglar in my own home, and highly uncomfortable.
Unable to hear anything, I edged along the corridor and closer to the lounge, glad we'd laid such thick carpeting. Gently, I rested my ear against the uppermost panel of the living-room door, Angela and Debbie less than four inches away. All I could detect was the steady pulse of the clock above the fire, plus those infrequent creaks that structures insist making at night. Nothing else. No accusations. No threats. Just a fragile, quiet house.
Taking a long breath, I opened the door and stepped inside. No one was there. The room gave off similar impressions as the kitchen had, as if recently in use but now deserted. There were no signs of habitation; it was exactly the way it'd been before our row earlier on - TV off; papers askew; wine uncorked but not yet sipped...
I saw that mud had been trodden into the carpet. What appeared to be several high heels began at the front door, strode along the hall, into the lounge, and ended in the centre of the living-room. A half-finished glass of vodka was on the sideboard. I went upstairs to nothing. I checked the master bedroom, and found nothing. I floundered into the spare bedrooms, and found nothing. I searched the bathroom, the attic, the hallway, the cellar and the garden, and in each room found nothing.
Back in the lounge I could smell their intermingled perfume - the svelte fragrance Angela dabbed around her ears, the spray Debbie used despite her allergy. I sat down in Angela's armchair; the cushions had retained some of her heat. I sipped her vodka, careful not to smudge the lipsticked rim. Her taste had been left in the liquid; a taste which had always put me in mind of sliced fruit.
Soon I would pick up the phone and call people, starting with the ambulance service (I don't know why; it seemed the logical thing to do), and ending with the police. But until then I would sit by myself, sit and listen to the crackling air, which smelt oddly chemical.
I discovered the letters three weeks after my name had lost interest for the local media, two days after disgruntled detectives had finally quit digging up my garden and asking me questions. They neglected to apologise, still convinced - despite a lack of corpses - that because we'd argued on the night in question, and because I was involved in an extra-marital affair, that I'd committed some twisted crime of passion.
In light of this, I decided to sell up and move. After being dragged through so much mud it seemed the sensible thing to do. I put the house on the market, and found a naive buyer almost immediately. It was as I packed and labelled everything into boxes that I unearthed Angela's love letters, wedged behind a loose panel in her side of the wardrobe. The final one was dated more than a year ago, but since it wasn't riddled by guilt or remorse I sensed that it hadn't finished there, merely swapped to alternative methods of communication. Each was hand-written and detailed sexual couplings with my wife that would, I think, have made even Debbie blush. They were signed B, and I dedicated hours to going through Angela's address books searching for a suitable candidate. Even if I had managed to put a name to the initial what would it have proved? That she, too, had taken a lover, and spent her days doing exactly the same as I.
Sitting amidst the objects of my life, poring over descriptions of the wild fucks they'd enjoyed, I wasn't sure which of us had acted most out of character. We'd both hidden it well, so I suppose we were both as bad as each other. But there must have been a difference though, because we'd survived for so long as a pair.
I considered burning the letters, but changed my mind at the last minute. Instead, I folded each piece of cyan paper in half, popped them into a shoe box and took them with me. They are a last link to my old life; to the person who really lived behind those kisses.
I placed most of the furniture in storage, paying for five years. The essentials - my clothes; some books; Angela's letters - I loaded into the car and took with me. I haven't settled anywhere yet. I drive around and stay in hotels and hostels. Free from Debbie, the rooms I rent feel frigid; and, free from Angela, the home I remember us having feels lost.
I read more these days; on buses and trains, in the unpainted waiting rooms of railway stations and the grey lobbies of public buildings, in taxi queues and airports, at war memorials and at strangers' funerals. I read textbooks mainly - mathematics, physics, chemistry. I'm trying to understand what happens when two negatives react. So far none of the professors I've consulted seem to follow what I'm talking about, let alone have any answers. I might try America, or maybe Germany or France. I've got to know.
© Jason Gould 1997, 1998
"Double Negative" first appeared in The Third Alternative #12.
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