I got to know someone recently who managed to give up his job teaching in a Spanish school for four years to pursue studies in the UK. His purpose was to improve his English and so he embarked on an undergraduate degree no more strenuous than the one he already had from Spain. He chose to study English literature. His original degree was in Spanish and Portuguese. I had known him for a couple of months before he mentioned that he would probably eventually return home, that he had a job waiting for him. It helped explain an affable manner that seemed unlike most people I knew to have little concern for the future. While I would have assumed in most instances this was because someone had a relaxed attitude to life, one that meant he or she didn't worry about tomorrow since it hadn't yet taken place, Juan seemed not to worry about the future since it was already semi-ordained. Yet it was to be the belief in the semi-ordained that led him to overreact in a manner that I felt was as baffling as it was to be fortuitous.
I had found myself when first getting to know him wondering how different the world would be if we all needn't worry about the future: if the future was already waiting for us to arrive at it. Of course such ideas can lead to thoughts that might suggest the abstract and the metaphysical, but Juan's future prospects seemed quite different from my own. Yet I also, I believed, appeared relaxed and not overly concerned with where my life might go, even if, unlike Juan, I had no job in the future awaiting me. There I was finally studying for a degree at twenty-eight, after leaving school at seventeen and working as a fruit picker for three years, and as an English TEFL teacher for a further seven. I can't even claim I took the degree to improve my job prospects; I took it to have the student life I had earlier foregone.
Not long after meeting Juan, I also befriended Susan, who was in the first year of a PhD in philosophy and whose interest in the subject was never quite matched by the anxiety it generated in her. She had clear skin that indicated someone who drank lots of water and restricted her sugar intake chiefly to fruit, and her body was lean without being skinny. Yet I never saw her without mild pouches below her eyes and she admitted that she had always had trouble sleeping, perhaps because there was always something that concerned her. It gave her very attractive features not so much a flaw as a vulnerability. and I might have assumed it was a fragility I would always have been more drawn to than Juan.
Susan's inclination she admitted was towards speculation; the PhD she had embarked upon demanded categorical analysis. Why did she do it, I asked her one evening at the student union bar here in Edinburgh. We had met earlier that night in a screening at the film society I had joined with Juan, and Susan, who had been involved with it as an undergraduate, introduced the film with a remark or two about the director, and said that there would be an informal discussion in the bar for those interested afterwards. I'm not quite sure why I feel it is important to say a few words about first meeting Susan while I see no reason to mention how I met Juan, but perhaps it concerns the countering of first impressions. Susan seemed to me that night sure of her future even if she suspected she might not be happy in it: she knew that if she wanted a decent standard of living she would need to practice a proper profession as she explained that her parents never had much capital: her father was a painter who often did portraits for beer money, and her mother was a writer who took odd jobs in libraries, language schools and advertising. She admired the work they did, she said to Juan and me, but less how they had lived. If the only way she could avoid replicating the latter was by avoiding the perceived freedoms of the former, then so an academic career would have to be countenanced. It was a future at least, she said, turning to look at Juan whose face I suppose most women would prefer to look at rather than mine. Hers was one he was quite happy to look at too, and I wasn't surprised when a week later Juan told me that they were seeing each other.
Juan presented this news as a casual fact; rather different than how Susan presented it to me when a couple of days after that I saw her on the third floor of the university library. We hadn't met since the screening and thus had only met once, but she hugged me as we greeted each other, before saying that she hoped I had heard the news: that she and Juan were now going out together. While Juan had offered it up as a bashful fact, Susan presented it as a serious proclamation: as someone else might say they had become engaged. Everything in Juan's demeanour indicated an encounter that probably wouldn't last; everything in Susan's suggested that this was part of the future she expected to arrive at. I could see in her face immense anticipation, and also with it what I might be recalling with hindsight as immense anxiety. We only talked for a couple of minutes, but when we hugged again, as she went down the stairs and I continued up to the fourth floor, I believed, as I offered it, that I conveyed in my hug that she should be careful.
This had very little do with anything malevolent in Juan, who in the few weeks I had known him showed nothing but warmth and good humour in my company, and that he had already slept with several women before meeting Susan didn't seem at all calculating or insistent. Women liked him and he liked them back: a bed seemed the best place to continue that attraction. I assumed the women had known he was interested only in casual assignations - but whether he had conveyed this to Susan or not, he had said to me a week or two earlier that while a fling was of more importance than the one night encounters he had previously experienced since coming to the university, he couldn't see anything lasting more than a term. He was here for fun, and commitment was contrary to that. Had he managed to make this clear to Susan, I asked, the next time I met him, and after I had seen Susan in the library? He shrugged and said that he had tried, but she didn't seem to be listening to the words, and Juan knew that he had the habit of contradicting his assertive comments with what I supposed was the assuagement of his caress.
My friendship with Susan was not based on her relationship with Juan, and I would see her often alone, as if a friend I had met long before her fling with the Spanish lothario. When we would often meet up just ourselves she would sometimes wish to talk about Juan, and even on occasion, I suspected, wished to prise information from me about him. During the time they were initially together, I never told her anything about Juan, partly because there was nothing that I could see that needed to be revealed - as far as I knew Juan was faithful to Susan and dedicated to her spatially if not temporally. What did I mean by this? Nothing more than that like most of us but in a more pronounced manner, Juan wished to be faithful for the period he was seeing Susan, but knew that in the future there would be other women just as there had been in the past. Perhaps this is partly where his fidelity to Susan lay - that he could be faithful to her when they were together and look forward to others in the future. He would stay, as he had stayed in two or three relationships in the past, until he had exhausted that passion, In brief flings and one-night stands he had obviously exhausted them very quickly indeed. While no doubt he didn't express this thought to Susan he did express it to me, saying one evening that from a certain point of view Susan could see herself as very special indeed: he had not yet exhausted that passion. He said it with a resigned smile, his white teeth pronounced against black stubble, his eyes wolfish as though already looking forward to the next conquest.
Over the next few months, I watched Susan become increasingly anxious as she awaited the moment Juan would say he no longer wished to see her, and would worry when they were in a bar and there were other young women she believed Juan would want to leave her over. After I had told her that had Juan never cheated on anybody, that she could be guaranteed his fidelity if not his permanent emotional residency, she was at first calmed by the thought, but in time became still more fretful because of it. If he was with her and occasionally philandering then these passing women would be no more than a momentary passion expelled, but his code of honour meant that if any of these women attracted him enough to sleep with them, he would end their relationship and she would have nothing of Juan at all. Susan told me this one evening after a screening. We had tried to keep a seat for him two thirds from the back of the theatre, but it was a popular film and as the credits came up we couldn't justify holding it any longer. Juan arrived just as the director's credit came up and looking around for a free seat found one two rows in front of us next to someone he seemed to clearly know, a young woman who throughout the screening would laugh with Juan as if they knew each other well, or that their shared sense of humour was allowing for a developing acquaintanceship. During the screening, I could tell Susan wasn't concentrating on the film at all, and I, in turn, was also watching the drama taking place a couple of rows in front rather than focusing on the comedy on the screen. At one moment, she whispered something in Juan's ear that might have been justified by the quiet that would be expected of any viewer trying to convey a piece of information whilst respecting others in the audience, but in that moment indicated a disrespect to someone sitting two rows behind. By the end of the screening, everyone else had watched a comedy but Susan had witnessed for her a tragedy. At the end of the film, the woman slipped out while the end credits were still on, and Juan looked around, noticing us as the lights went up. He had the smile he would usually have unless circumstances were so obviously against him, and this was not yet one of those. However, as we moved towards the bar, he must have noticed something was wrong, and rather than confronting it he made what I assumed to be an excuse. He wouldn't have time for a drink, he insisted, there was so much work he had to do. The cynical, or the vulnerably involved, might have thought Juan wanted to get away to spend time in the company of the woman at the cinema. I didn't believe this to be so even though I saw immense insensitivity in Juan's deed and, as I talked with Susan over it in the bar that evening, I suggested this was Juan's way: he could see for whatever reason that she wasn't in a good mood and that he would prefer to be around when she returned to it. Didn't he suspect that the bad mood was because of him, she reasoned. I said he might well have done but believed it was a momentary one and that she would feel differently the next day. Why would he wish to create a scene; better to leave and let the mood sort itself out. All he had done, after all, from his point of view, was turn up a little late at the cinema, and sit next to someone he knew rather than the person he was seeing. There was nothing apparently deliberate in this: had he arrived a couple of minutes earlier it would have been Susan that he would have sat beside.
I offered to Susan in that instance Juan's psychology and not my own. Over the months that I got to know him I often envied more Juan's insistent need to formulate events in their simplest manner rather than his capacity to bed far more woman than I would probably have been capable of sleeping with. It was at that moment, having taken our drinks to the balcony overlooking the bar, Susan spoke about preferring it if Juan would sleep with someone casually and continue seeing her; rather than being aware that at any moment he could permanently leave her for another. I knew then that Susan's thinking was not too unlike my own, no matter if I tried to reassure her over the next hour or so that she was creating needless problems for herself. I had bought the first round and Susan insisted that she would buy another even if I had intended to stay out only for the one drink. I said to get me half a pint and as she was standing at the bar I noticed from the balcony Juan coming out from one of the tables that would have been directly below us and presumably went to the bathroom. Given the position of the balcony in relation to the seat directly below, I could not see who he was sitting with, and could hardly shout down to Susan to ask who was sitting at the table underneath. I am sure Juan didn't see Susan, and clearly Susan hadn't seen Juan. After finishing my second beer, I went downstairs to the bathroom, deliberately passing through the bar area and looking in the direction where Juan would have been seated. He wasn't there, but the person who had been sitting next to him in the cinema was, along with a couple of friends, a male and a female. I had only seen her from behind in the cinema, and saw a hint of a profile, but now seeing her for no more than a few seconds from the front I could see that she might well have been Juan in female form. There was a health to her Susan could never have hoped to emulate, the sense of someone who could sleep easily for eight to ten hours without waking up and worrying for half an hour about her future as she would stare at the ceiling. I could see as her eyes flashed across to the others that she was used to receiving attention and holding it, and while I wasn't sure whether Juan and this young woman would love each other, they would have known that being together would generate a heat that would take some time to cool. She was teeth, hair and eyes. In the cinema during the screening, she had played with her thick, coal-dark mane and in the pub smiled with both her eyes and her teeth . When Susan smiled it was with a wish to please rather than with the expression of humour, and her teeth, neat, perfect and small, could never quite project themselves out onto the world.
As I went back to my seat, I wondered if Juan spotted Susan, or perhaps me, and promptly left? But why had he come to the bar when he must have thought there was a reasonable chance we might have come for a drink here after the film. True, we would usually go to a bar across the road, but if he wanted an assignation would he not have suggested somewhere further away? Had the decision been made by the others, and if he wanted to see her at all he would have to return more or less to the scene of his minor emotional infraction?
I didn't say anything to Susan that evening, and didn't see Juan for several weeks. Around three days after the incident, I received a text from Susan in the afternoon asking if we could meet up - Juan had told her it was over. I delayed the reply for fifteen minutes, unsure whether I should see Susan as soon as I could, or speak to Juan first. I phoned him and received no reply, then sent a text telling him to contact me. I then sent a text to Susan saying that I could see her at around seven thirty, giving me enough time to see or speak to Juan beforehand. Why? Hadn't the decision been made; was I going to try and persuade Juan to stay in the relationship? No, I felt I needed to know what to tell Susan, whether I should inform her that I had seen Juan briefly the other day when we were in the pub and that he was with the woman he had left her for. But to tell Susan this without first seeing Juan wasn't only a moral problem and a question of sensitivity: of what I ought to tell her for her own well-being. It was also if I did want to speak truthfully I could only do so if I had the correct information. Yet I received no reply, and perhaps it was in this silence that I made my own decision to tell Susan that while it might be so that Juan didn't cheat on the women he was seeing, perhaps he did sometimes at least leave one woman for another. As we sat in the bar in Bruntsfield near Susan's flat, I told her what I knew, allowing for a hint of speculation that Susan ignored, as she believed she saw exactly what had happened. It was clear to Susan that Juan left claiming he had work to do, sneaked back later assuming she had gone for a drink elsewhere on hearing that the other woman was present, and then left again when he saw that she was getting a drink by the bar. I said that some of these were assumptions she was making rather than facts she was stating but I couldn't deny that it wasn't at all improbable. There he was sitting with a young woman whose company he seemed to enjoy at a screening, and a few days later he had broken up with Susan.
Over the next few weeks, I saw a lot of Susan and nothing of Juan. I texted him once more and received no reply, assuming he was so ashamed of what he did that he couldn't even face me let alone Susan, or was so indifferent to the pain he caused that he saw no reason why he should explain himself. Once Susan and I were in a cafe near the university and Juan walked in on his own and just as promptly walked out. He must have seen the two of us sitting together and, we both agreed, didn't want to risk a confrontation. A few days after that it happened again - again he looked into the cafe, saw us there and left.
I would also during this period see the woman from the cinema, but she was never in the company of Juan, and I assumed their encounter was brief: exciting enough for Juan to leave Susan over, but not so exciting for anything more permanent, which somehow surprised me. It made me wonder whether Susan had been more important to him than Susan would be willing to see; that at least Juan had wished to be with her for several months, while every other encounter I knew of had been very temporary indeed. I told Susan my view of events, hoping I suppose to assuage her, aware that we could perhaps see there are negative and positive speculations even if we do not have the necessary evidence to claim something as fact. If I had seen Juan on a few occasions with the person from the cinema, I would, of course, have kept my extrapolations to myself, and had I known an affair was taking place I might have done likewise. But if I were to comment that the latter had been the case, I would have done so with the clear knowledge that he had left one woman for another and Susan needed to accept this reality.
I have often thought that people speculate because they are too inactive in their own lives and, out of this inactivity, springs thoughts which generate a richer world than the actual as it is. Our impoverishment of experience creates instead the multiplication of possibilities. If we are lucky this becomes a creative act; if we are very unlucky a mental condition. I was not unattractive, I suppose, but I lacked what I saw as both Juan's photogenic handsomeness and his capacity to exist in any situation as though there was no surplus mental activity and physical behaviour that wasn't in the situation he found himself in. When I was in company I was never quite there unless I was conversationally capable of being somewhere else simultaneously. It wasn't that I was ugly; more that I was never happy enough in my own body to want to spend time their exclusively. Maybe when we talk of beauty this is what we mean: that someone is so attractive that they want to bask in that beauty and wish for others to do likewise. I recall reading once that an actress who was very beautiful would feel when she met people that she was often disappointing them. This was not, she admitted, because she assumed those in her company believed she was less beautiful than they would have expected. No, she reckoned that they didn't find her as interesting as they might have hoped. I might think that she was misconstruing the purpose of her appeal: that she was there to be there. If she was disappointing them it was that she wasn't as present as they may have wished her to be. I make this claim with no sexist implications: it was as pertinent to Juan as it would have been for this actress, except that I would have been at that time surprised if Juan had expressed such a thought as hers since he always seemed to be very present indeed,
Yet perhaps I should have kept in mind the actress's remarks, seeing that she might just have been reflecting on her vulnerabilities and that anyone in her company would not have shown a sense of disappointment. At the same time, I could see one of the interesting things for me about Susan was that she never quite seemed to be there; her mind was always somehow, somewhere else. Juan might, it seemed, have no reason to worry about his future, but Susan would have been dispositionally inclined to worry about hers no matter how secure it would likely have become. Even if her relationship with Juan had appeared sound, she would have found reasons to doubt its future. During the rest of the semester and into the second term, I would see Susan often, yet she would never ask if I had seen Juan. The true answer was that I hadn't seen him at all since that mid-November evening when I viewed him from the balcony, and while I found this odd since Juan seemed to me someone who would go out almost every night even when he was seeing Susan, I just assumed he was frequenting other bars and clubs I would be unlikely to socialise in. While I might have supposed he would have gone back to Spain over Christmas, I wouldn't have assumed that he hadn't returned.
It was in late February when entering the third floor of the library I thought I saw him coming down the stairs from the fourth, and unsure whether it was him, moved briskly down the stairs and through the door, looking from left to right and at shelves of books, standing in row after row. I walked a few metres to the computer area and looked at rows of the backs of screens and the faces looking at those screens, before walking across by the windows where people would work at rows of desks. I walked around the third floor for about fifteen minutes, passing down and along every row of books determined less to find Juan, than to have my perception confirmed. After fifteen minutes of a fruitless search I gave up as I realised I wasn't only looking for Juan in the present, I was also worried that I had wrongly recognized him in the bar a few months earlier. I was in my search at least hoping to discover that the person I had seen had not been Juan, thus confirming I might have been wrong months earlier, however terrible that would have been. But now I was left with both doubt and anxiety as I was unsure on two occasions whether I had spotted Juan or someone else. This was no idle misapprehension: this would be a misapprehension with consequences. Imagine if that hadn't been Juan I had seen in the student union bar, what chain of events had come about as a consequence of this misapprehension? Yet thinking about it assuaged my low key anxiety: the decision to split up had been Juan's, not Susan's. Even if I had confused him with someone else, it wouldn't have made any difference to the future at all.
Over the next month I didn't see Juan again, or his lookalike, but I did sometimes see the striking woman with long black, wavy hair at the University Film Society. I would usually go alone since Susan had stopped coming after Juan split up with her in fear she might see him there, though in all the subsequent screenings I attended he was absent. Yet at almost all of them, however, was the woman Susan suspected he had gone off with. Over the months we would say hello to each other but never talked, and it wasn't until a screening in the middle of March that it seemed more appropriate to talk than not. The film we had watched was a comedy that only a few people seemed to find amusing; she was one of them, I happened to be another. We were also sitting in the same row, with the three people between us laughing hardly at all at a film whose humour they didn't appear so much to miss as find mildly offensive. They looked more inclined to get up from their seats rather fall out of them laughing, and so after the screening, as we sat through the end credits while everyone else in the row promptly left, I looked across at her and she looked back at me. Our look was complicit and it didn't feel at all gratuitous that I suggested we get a drink in the bar, we could try and work out why so many didn't find it funny and we did.
Initially, we talked about the film and why we liked it: both agreeing that what made it so funny, and clearly for some offensive, was its perspective. It risked alienating the many for the few - and while I liked the idea of the many in politics (wasn't that democracy?), I never much cared for it in art. She agreed, saying that too many of the films the Society programmed played safe: democracy in action and bugger the aesthetics. I had always assumed she was Spanish or Italian, but the accent was Scottish as Maddy explained her grandparents came from Italy to Scotland after the war, predictably opened an ice cream parlour, added a chip shop, and now the family had what she had to admit was a very good restaurant in Comiston village, on the outskirts of the city. I said I had passed it a few times while walking out by the canal and through Comiston Glen, though always either sat and ate a sandwich on the bench in the graveyard (she looked at me a little shocked) or had a pint in the local pub. You should come some time she said. I paused for a moment over the verb - it seemed very different from go.
As we stayed in the bar for a couple of hours until it closed, I eventually asked her about Juan, half determined to find out whether she was seeing him, had feelings for him; half-determined to find out if I had comprehended the past as clearly as I would have liked some hint of a future with Maddy. She said she had met up only briefly with him once since he had got back a couple of weeks earlier and that he had returned to his cheerful self. I said I hadn't realized he had been so miserable. I hadn't been in contact for a while, or rather he hadn't been. She said Juan had taken things badly as she explained what I already knew but from a very different perspective. Maddy said that one evening a few months ago he had seen his girlfriend with a friend of his and saw something in their interaction that made him sure an affair was developing. He had been to see a film, popped back home determined to finish some work, but came out again for a drink with her and some friends, but also, he had admitted, to see if his girlfriend had gone for a drink with the friend he suspected she liked. There they were sitting together on the balcony in complicit discussion and he felt betrayed. He stayed for a few minutes afterwards, but when she went up to the bar to get a drink he sensed she was so interested in the other man and so uninterested in his presence that she didn't even notice him sitting nearby. Maddy said he was making too much of the situation: that he should go upstairs and join them: hadn't he said the person she was with was also a friend of his? Instead, he said that he didn't like uncertainty in his life and left the pub. About a week later Maddy and Juan met up again and he had told her he'd finished with his girlfriend. For a moment Maddy wondered if Juan had done so for the purposes of asking her out. She would, of course, have said no - not because she didn't find Juan attractive and fun, but that anyone who could break off with someone else, on so flimsy a premise that looked like an easy excuse to start seeing another woman, she would have rejected. But there was no suggestion he wanted to start seeing her and instead it seemed for a few weeks he didn't want to see anyone at all. She texted him a couple of times but received no reply, and no longer saw him around the university library, union, or nearby cafes. It felt odd listening to Maddy speak about Juan's jealousy towards me, unaware that the other man she was speaking about was sitting in front of her. After she finished I said to her that the man on the balcony had been me, that I had been the person sitting a couple of rows back with Juan's girlfriend as we waited for him to arrive. That he turned up late meant the only place to sit was next to her. I wondered aloud if a greater fortuitousness would have been if I had arrived late instead as I placed my hand on top of hers in a gesture that was not unromantic but was also sad: that Susan and Juan might have still been together if only the seating situation had been different.
I knew however that this was unlikely to have been the case, that in time Juan's insecurities (for all his bravado when talking to me) would probably have become pronounced, no matter the security evident in the job that he had waiting for him back in Spain. There was perhaps an aspect of Susan that he had found inscrutable and while for some this would be reason to be fascinated, for Juan it seemed to be the cause of his own anxieties, all but unaware that they were matched by Susan's own. As I explained to Maddy that I had been the man on the balcony, that Susan and I had never been more than friends, and that I found it both amusing and unfortunate that Juan had been envious of my relationship with Susan, so it occurred to me that where we were sitting was directly below where Susan and I had been seated that evening: indeed, where Juan, Maddy and her friends were. I wondered for a moment who was above us that evening but never found out.
Over the next few days, I saw nothing of Maddy and nothing of Susan, though Maddy and I were in regular contact through text, and had arranged to meet on Friday evening. I had an essay deadline that Friday and I was also not quite sure what to say to Susan - I wanted to tell her that it was Juan's strength of feeling not the waning of it that had led to the break-up, but I was also wary of telling her partly because it might open old wounds when the wound itself would appear to have been Juan's. I suspected that for all the security Juan's future job gave him, there was probably a past event that helped explain a little his overreaction that night. If I told Susan that the split had been based on a misunderstanding, would she not wish to start seeing him again, only for the problem to arise once more? I have always thought that storytelling is never a neutral act, that it is all very well trusting the tale rather then the teller but can we ignore the motive behind the telling? I've already noted my reservations about what we should tell and what we shouldn't tell based on the limited information we all inevitably possess. On this occasion, I kept my silence but clearly Maddy had not. I was walking past a cafe on Nicholson Street on Thursday afternoon, and sitting by the window were Juan and Susan. Their hands were clasped over each other's in a gesture not unlike mine and Maddy's a couple of nights earlier. I was happy that they might see each other again but also happy that it had been Maddy rather than I who had presumably led to them contacting each other again. I thought about their future as well as Maddy's and my own. This had nothing to do with marriage and children; more a feeling in one's body of hope that is connected to events that we might regard as secure or insecure, as hopeful or hopeless, but whose emotional content is always slightly adrift from events themselves. Some might call this psychological. I would be more inclined to see it as an interim space we can never quite name, neither subject nor object, past nor future. It was a moment that, if it were infinite, wouldn't be cause for unhappiness.
© Tony McKibbin