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Complicities

 

Perhaps I should have known our relationship was finished when one evening I went over to my girlfriend’s place and I had assumed I was invited to dinner with her and a fellow Italian friend, yet was told they wanted to talk alone. When my partner, Giulia, first came to London the year before, I had introduced them to each other, but during that period where Giulia had seen Sophia many times, I had only seen her three or four, and always in the company of Giulia.

Now the week before this dinner non-invite Giulia sat me down and said that she didn’t think it was working. I was too preoccupied by my own studies, a PhD on four key Italian writers of the post-war years, and too interested in seeing various friends. I knew the former to be true, but the latter was not. Indeed I would often see friends on the street. They would say we would have to meet up; yet we never did. I had work and Giulia, with much of our time given over to going for walks, eating, watching films, and going to galleries. The rest of my time I worked on the PhD, working in the morning and afternoons reading in the National Library, and would write several evenings a week as well as Saturday and sometimes Sunday morning. Giulia would often say it was a lovely morning and shouldn’t we go for a walk, and I would usually say yes, but not just yet – I would work for another hour. So often by the afternoon the weather had turned grey and she would be irritated that we had missed the morning sunshine. This is not Italy, she would remark, we cannot expect sun all day.

Anyway, it was a few days before this dinner that Giulia said she wanted to take a break, wanted to find herself, believing since she arrived in London to be with me she had lost part of her personality, felt that even the job she was doing – working for a marketing firm – gave her little meaning. She had given up employment in an Italian gallery to come to London, and was wondering whether I cared enough about her to make the sacrifice worthwhile. I noticed as we talked that afternoon an accumulated resentment that she was probably quite entitled to show. I hadn’t made a single sacrifice to be with her; I was still living in the same flat, working on my dissertation, and following my usual routine. She had left her family, with whom she was close, a job she enjoyed, and a city that was home. I concurred when she proposed the break, feeling that I wanted a break also – the accumulated pressure of receiving commitment, without quite knowing whether I could offer commitment back, felt a little like an emotional g-force. I was relieved when she said wanted to be alone for a while.

Giulia was the most beautiful woman I had ever gone out with. She was a couple of inches shorter than me (I am five eleven), and in heels we would be the same height. She had black hair with enough waves to give it natural bounce, and when she walked along the street her hair, her bottom and her breasts all offered a sort of sexual provocation. I have had girlfriends in the past and while they had lovely faces, and wonderful figures, when they moved through public spaces they didn’t have that quality which made men look at them. Their bodies did not move in a manner that made aspects of it stand out. Giulia’s walk was a sexual thing, and men would often look at her, as if figures in an Italian comedy set in the south of the country during a sweltering summer. Yet this was London, and often Giulia would be wrapped in a coat; but still people looked.

However, part of the pressure I felt being with Giulia was this sense that I was lucky to have her, that shouldn’t I be devoting all my time and energy to this woman so many other men were lusting after?  During the next couple of weeks I felt freer than I had done for more than a year, and even that moment, where I went along to her flat and was told I wasn’t invited to dinner, caused me no disquiet. We were on a break, I reminded myself; there was no reason why I should be entitled to have dinner with her and Sophia.

The following day I booked for a trip to France, where I had some friends in Paris whose flats I could stay in. A couple of days after that Giulia phoned me saying maybe the idea of the break was a bit hasty, and perhaps we should start seeing each other again. I explained I had booked for a three week trip to France, and she said there was no chance that she would be able to get three weeks off. I wondered if she would like to pop across for a weekend. She said this was yet another example of me controlling things, saying that I would go ahead and do whatever I wanted: she would be expected to fit into my plans. I tried to say politely that she instigated the break; I thought in that period I should go and enjoy myself alone, reminding her that when I went round to her flat she made clear I wasn’t invited. Maybe if I had moved to Italy, she said, none of this would have happened. Over that last month these types of arguments had become common, where a minor issue would reveal a greater grievance. She had a point about Italy: there was no reason why I couldn’t have continued my PhD abroad and she could have kept her job in the gallery. I knew Italian, I had no special reason to be in London, and I could have worked easily in Bologna where she was from, and where she was employed. I reminded her however that she moved to London partly because she wanted to experience a big city; indeed we met while she was in London improving her English.

But of course at a certain point reason counts for little in an emotional argument, and she ended the call by saying she hoped I enjoyed Paris, maybe I would even meet up with my ex-French girlfriend. She was referring to someone I hadn’t seen for a couple of years, but who may or may not have been in the city again. A few months earlier Gioulia and I argued over her when she came across a couple of her pictures in my drawer. I had never been one for organising my photos, and in the same drawer could be found pictures from my childhood, from university, from various travel trips with ex-girlfriends. The drawer has a lock but I had never thought to use the key. I suppose she thought part of the Paris trip was to meet up again with Justine, but that said more about the way her mind worked than my own, or perhaps she knew well the sub-conscious workings of mine.

So I went off to Paris, staying for ten days with a friend near Rue de Batignolle, and then for another ten with a friend at La Republique. The latter friend said he was still in touch with Justine. He had heard she was presently in Paris; would I want to meet up? I asked if she wanted to see me. He texted her saying I was in the city – did she want to meet for a drink? She agreed and we arranged to see each other in a café we knew from years before, a café next to the Canal St Martin. It was about four days before the end of my trip, and for most of the time the sky had been cloudy with only intermittent sunshine. But the afternoon I went to see Justine the sun was out, people were picnicking by the canal, and the temperature was warm but not muggy.

As I arrived she was already there sitting reading a book and drinking an espresso. A memory returned and with it a feeling: I remembered the two of us sitting reading in this very cafe a few years before and wondered if I was still in love with her as I recalled the moment not as a cold thought but a warm one. Within half an hour we were talking like we had years before, as though all the recriminations and accusations had never taken place. We talked again of books, people, politics and art. She was always more intellectually engaged than Giulia, and when she went to the bathroom I watched her walk and thought about all the differences between the two of them.  If Giulia was a woman who walked with the confidence of someone who knew people were watching; Justine moved with equal confidence but as if assuming nobody would be watching her at all. Her movements carried no extraneous flirtation, and yet her movements were always delicate. If Giulia wanted to take up as much of the street as possible as she sashayed along it; Justine moved as though determined to contain herself compactly.

When she returned, I said I always liked the way she moved without expecting anybody to look at her. As I said it I felt like I had committed a mild emotional infidelity towards Giulia. But hadn’t we decided to take a break, and wasn’t I allowed to say whatever I liked to whomever I liked now? After drinks I asked if she had to rush off anywhere. No, she said, she had put the day aside: she was free. The weather was still clear and I wondered if she would like to walk. We strolled up by the canal, up through Stalingrad and all the way to Villette. There was an exhibition that we took in, and afterwards we sat outside at a nearby café and drank a couple of glasses of wine. Already slightly merry, we went on to listen to some jazz. We left the club after midnight, more than merry, and wondered where we should go onto next. Justine’s parents had a flat they would rent during term time but that was free during the summer, and that is why she would often return from teaching French in whatever country she happened to be in, and spend a month or two in the city. She said we could go back and get a herbal tea at hers, which was not far from where I was staying – it was a flat off La Place de la Republique on the other side of the Place.

I of course agreed, thinking not at all of Giulia but instead remembering some of the times Justine and I shared together, moments that we had talked of earlier in the evening. Back at hers we made love deeply, as though bodies new to each other and yet with a vague memory of distant touch. The last week of my stay we spent in each other’s company. The morning after we were together I went over to my friend’s place and took my things to Justine’s, and it was later that afternoon, as we went again for a long walk all the way out to the park Buttes Chaumont, that we talked about the manner in which we had split up.

It was five years before and we were living in Edinburgh. We had been together four years after meeting in our final year at university in the city. We parted around the time she had finished her PhD, and she wanted to move back to France or on to somewhere else, or at the very least share a flat with me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but liked the job I had in a second-hand book shop, liked the lack of pressure in my life, and wanted it to continue indefinitely. She said we could take a break, and I could think about what I wanted to do. It was when we recalled this that it reminded me of a similar situation to the one more recently with Giulia. Justine and a friend had arranged to meet at Justine’s flat, and I buzzed up hoping for a chat. She let me in and she said her friend was coming shortly; that she wanted to eat alone with her. For the first time in the entire period I was with Justine I felt jealous, though not of the friend, whom I knew a little too, but of some complicity between them.

Not that long afterwards Justine left Edinburgh, moved back to Paris and I later found out returned to an ex-boyfriend she had been with before we met. I suspected that one of the reasons why I wasn’t invited that day was because Justine had been back in touch with her ex: that she  wanted to talk to her friend about the ex who was moving once again into her life. She left for Paris about six weeks later, and apart from e-mails now and again we hadn’t been in contact, apart from a brief meeting a couple of years ago in Paris where we awkwardly stopped and chatted on a Paris street. As we walked up to the tower at Buttes Chaumont that allowed for a view across the city, I asked her what she talked about that day with her friend. She asked was it really so important and I said to her it had always been; it was the moment I felt we had lost our complicity, yet I withheld from her the idea that I was asking also because I wanted to know whether Giuila perhaps did the same before this trip. Maybe she was even back in touch with an ex in Italy whom she had left only two months before we had met.

Justine said she remembered the conversation with her friend well. She told her that she was losing patience with me, and the gathering resentment was making her fall out of love. Also, in the previous month or two her ex had been increasingly in touch, was living in Paris and she knew she wanted to return home. Much of the anger and frustration towards me became affection towards him. This is what she and her friend had talked about. I asked why she hadn’t told me exactly what she had told the friend. She explained that is often how resentment works – the person we love becomes our enemy; we stop sharing our thoughts, doubts, confusions. Even a casual friend sometimes can become more of a confidante. As she offered these thoughts to me then, I knew we were becoming as close as we had been years before. As we looked across at the city I kissed her in a gesture that seemed still more intimate than our previous night’s lovemaking. As she tenderly kissed me back,  I recalled a moment where we kissed like this some years before while looking across the city from Sacre Coeur.

The feeling I had over the next few days as we made love in her apartment was of astonishing well-being. I didn’t miss Giuila at all, and my emotions towards Justine were not stronger than they were in the past but somehow happier. When we were together years before I felt, as I did with Giuila, responsible for her happiness; now I felt only responsible for my own. As we parted at the airport several days later, though, Justine got emotional and asked me to phone her when I got back, and I felt once again the burden of someone’s love without quite believing I could return it. However, I knew also that I was not in a relationship with Justine, and by the time I got back to London the burdensome feeling had passed.

On the plane back I thought about this idea I had always had that committing to a relationship contained within it the burden of another’s unhappiness. Yet I never believed I had burdened anyone with my unhappiness in turn. Indeed Justine said as much on one of the occasions where we talked in bed in Paris after making love. She believed I was the only man she knew who didn’t take his unhappiness out on someone else, but she did add, almost as a joke, but one that I took as an important observation, that I had a certain compelling power to make people feel their own life was less important than my own. This was perhaps why people had to leave.

I wanted to ask her more; but the moment was so sweet, the comment so casual, that it seemed to demand that I mull it over  and ask her about it on another occasion. That occasion never came while we were together in the city, and I felt somehow even in the asking that I would be opening up spaces that we somehow had kept closed throughout our time together in Paris. We had managed curiously to be very open with each other without opening up any wounds within one another.

Getting back to London I wouldn’t say I was in love once again with Justine, but I did believe I was no longer in love with Giulia. The feeling I possessed was of a comfortable warmth, of a sense that I could as readily sleep with Giuilia as Justine, but could easily sleep with neither or with someone else altogether. It was as though I was in love with love, in love with the feeling in my own body, and felt that it needed no specific subject – it was an immense feeling of ease.

Yet when I got back after a couple of days I thought I would contact Giulia, and left a couple of missed calls on her mobile and one message. She never got back to me, and it was a few days after that when I saw her at the cinema with a new man, or rather an old one – a fellow Italian she had befriended.  It was someone whom I’d briefly met, not long before the dinner I wasn’t invited to attend. The well-being generated by the Paris trip was immediately removed as if my entire body’s feeling sat somewhere between my lungs and my stomach. Over the next few days I couldn’t help but recall that moment where I wasn’t invited to dinner with Giulia and Sophie.

It would have been around a week after seeing Giulia at the cinema that I met up with Sophia for a tea and we started talking about love, relationships and feelings. I didn’t want to ask her what Giulia and her had talked about, didn’t want to say that I thought Giulia was already showing an interest in another man and wondered whether they talked about that, but the conversation we did have was revealing nevertheless. I told Sophia that when I went to Paris I still felt very strongly for Giulia, but that I respected she wanted a break, and while there I happened to meet again an ex-girlfriend, got close, and we shared a few days together. I felt it was reasonable to do so since Giulia wanted the break. While I had been with Giulia I had no contact with Justine, and it wasn’t at all planned when I went to Paris that I would see her.

Did she think what I did was unfair, unethical? She replied that she was not the person to judge, and confessed that though, as I of course knew, she was in a long term relationship with a man from London, that she also for a few months had been interested in a work colleague from the university. It was not love she insisted, but it was infatuation. It was a feeling that meant while she never quite felt comfortable with this man, she knew it created duplicity with Bill, her partner. The man was known in the department and indeed in the university as a womanizer, and she would often see the looks he would give a student, a secretary or a fellow tutor, and sometimes even herself. She wished her own partner could look at her in a similar manner. Over recent months she received on a few occasions a look from this man, and on a few occasions while he was at the department reception desk she would stand as close to him as possible, trying to take in his scent. I asked if he was interested would she cheat on her partner. Sophia replied that he seemed interested in almost all women – she knew she was attractive and young and he would be happy to oblige her. The question was whether she wanted to oblige him. When she met up with Giulia that day it was to discuss whether she would or wouldn’t allow the man to make a pass at her. I wanted to know what Giulia said, as if to see whether if she said she ought to do let him do so it reflected perhaps what she was thinking of doing with the man I saw her with a few days before. But I didn’t ask, as Sophia said the problem was resolved for her. A few days after the chat she had with Giulia, she saw the man with a woman and they clearly seemed to be in the process of falling in love. It made her not crazily jealous but instead reminded her of the first few months with her own partner, and for the past few weeks it had been as though she had fallen in love with Bill again. She said Bill had noticed the change in her, and said he was close to saying that perhaps they should take a break from each other. She wanted to say to him that in some very interior way that she had. But now there was no need: she loved him and he loved her.

After the coffee I went home feeling especially despondent. I suspected that where Sophia had talked of her interest in her work colleague; Giulia had discussed her interest in the man she was now seeing. That evening I wanted to phone Justine, but believed to do so would be to return not to ten days ago and the sense of calm that I had when we were together in the city, but to several years ago where she left me for another man. As I thought about both Giulia and Justine, I didn’t any longer have the capacity to keep two women in my mind simultaneously as inner calm. It instead manifested itself as a horrible inner despair as the feeling in my stomach that I felt when seeing Giulia with the person she was now with, segued into the moment years ago where I knew that Justine had also left me for someone else, and someone that she knew while she was still with me. I also thought of Sophia’s partner, and those couple of months where he was aware that Sophia was distant from him, and whether she would ever return. She did committing no more than a mental infidelity, a thought perhaps no one but Giulia and a couple of others knew about. But Giulia (I was sure) and I instead had turned our doubts and desires into actions in the world however they now sit as thoughts and feelings in my own body.

 

©Tony McKibbin