A while ago I was in a cafe with a friend when an odd incident took place. He was in Cork for around ten days attending, and writing on, a jazz festival, and visiting his girlfriend. I'd known him for about ten years, and he met Chloe six months earlier when we flat swapped. He came over to see a band he really liked; I took Sam's flat in Glasgow with my girlfriend. This was the first time he had been back since. Chloe visited him around three months earlier, and it seemed the affair was becoming serious as he came over to visit her.
It was the early afternoon and surprisingly quiet: the previous occasion we had been in the place it had been hectically packed, the chatter louder than the music. Chloe and her two assistants were so frantically serving coffees and carving up cake that I'd been given only the briefest of introductions as she had to get back to work. On this afternoon it was quiet enough for the one assistant to go out to pick up some items, and so the three of us had the opportunity to converse. Yet that afternoon it wasn't the chat which revealed to me a clear aspect of Chloe's personality, but another person's gesture: a gesture that was as much a revelation to Sam as it was to me.
Sam was, like me, in his mid-thirties; Chloe ten years younger than both of us. Perhaps because she had so little time that first afternoon to talk, and Sam had been so insistent that I should meet her, I was given the opportunity to form a judgement based on her looks and gestures, rather than on her saying anything about herself. I've often found this interesting: that frequently we are introduced to people before we have the chance to observe them at a distance: to see them not as they wish to present themselves, but as they happen to be despite themselves. Of course Chloe knew that I was in the cafe, aware that I was there to say hello, but I knew more about her by the time we left a couple of hours later through the way she interacted with her colleagues and customers rather than how she interacted with me. What I perceived was a woman who wanted to please everyone, but without any sense of putting on an act, and without any sign of irritation in situations where it might have been understandable. A couple of customers took minutes to make a decision when it was clear that Chloe had many things to do, and then, after she took their order and was turning to attend to another table, said they had changed their minds; then dithered for another minute. We were sitting a couple of tables away and I expected her to at least turn her head in our direction and roll her eyes, but no - she was focusing on the customers' needs.
After that visit to Ireland when Sam had first met Chloe, we talked on the phone: he said I might be seeing more of him than usual (we maybe saw each other every year or so): that he had met someone in Cork and she would be visiting him in a couple of months. If things were going well, he would be over not long after that. I asked him what she was like, and he jokingly mentioned a film he had seen years ago that had been partly about Vietnam War. The man who'd been to war was asked what it was like: he replied that it wasn't like anything. That was the point: it was a unique event. Chloe, he said, wasn't like anything either. Sam would often hide the strength of his feelings in facetiousness. I sometimes wondered if he would ever settle down because he couldn't quite talk his partner up: he would speak of his girlfriends as if they were temporarily passing through his life. While he would never put them down, he would be wary of elevating the affair to the status of a relationship. With one English girlfriend he said she wanted a conventional family life; it couldn't last. With another he believed that her parents would eventually insist on an arranged marriage: she was Indian. And sure enough they would end, with Sam always hurting but never regretful: he would have had to change more than he could have managed, he would insist.
I had never been convinced by Sam's claims, and I wouldn't believe this was only because I had been with my girlfriend since we were both twenty five. I would feel that Sam was as given to fidelity and commitment as I happened to be, but that he was drawn to an initial problem that makes the relationship impossible the more established it becomes. Whether it would happen to be conventional demands that he couldn't meet, or conventions that he couldn't match, he seemed to choose badly. This has nothing to do with the woman being a bad person; just bad for him. Was Chloe another example I asked him that evening when we talked on the phone, someone who had moved to Ireland around twelve years earlier with her mother but who still retained a trace of French accent. Someone who would, he admitted, often think of moving back there. I knew Sam always struggled with languages, and would never have felt comfortable living in a non-English language country. He thought not he insisted. She wasn't conventional, wasn't from a strictly religious family - he couldn't see any problem from the start. I believed him; I also thought that his use of the film to create a space between how special he thought she happened to be without explicitly stating that she was, suggested that he had feelings for her that he felt obliged to hide. In another instance I assumed he had done so not only or even especially to protect his own, but to protect theirs too. He would probably have said to the other girlfriends I have invoked that it couldn't last: that the first wanted convention; the second to please her parents. He wasn't right for them.
But of course some might understandably insist that in making such choices from the beginning this was Sam's way of avoiding a long term commitment; he could claim that much as he would like for them to be together for the rest of their lives that some aspect would unavoidably lead them to breaking up. They would end because they couldn't continue. They never ended with indifference, they would never peter out. They would explode, or rather perhaps the women would implode. I have mentioned two of his lovers, but there were two or three more, and they all ended similarly: the women would find other men. I don't know if they fell in love with these men they would leave him over, but what I did sense was that the men unequivocally fell in love with them: they offered a commitment and expressed an admiration Sam would I suspect never have managed. I am not so sure if he wouldn't have believed that they were right to leave. Whether they left for a better man or not; they almost certainly he suspected found a better relationship.
However, he talked of Chloe with an admiration and sense of commitment that I hoped he had managed to convey to her too. Yet I think we both knew that, in the gesture we witnessed in the cafe that afternoon, there was a problem that might prove insurmountable; one that had nothing to do with him. Or did it?
After we'd been in the cafe for about an hour, a well-dressed, elegant couple in their fifties walked in and looked a little out of place in this cafe where most of the clientele were in their twenties and early thirties. They were carrying shopping bags from Louis Vuitton and Chanel and, whatever new items they had bought, it looked as if they were wearing clothes designed by similar labels. A moment later Chloe came out from behind the counter and hugged what was clearly her mother and her stepfather. She then looked across at Sam and me, and beckoned to Sam to come over and say hello. I think she was surprised to see them, and Sam later told me it wasn't the ideal circumstances in which to meet, but over he went, shaking hands with them both. I could see in Sam's demeanour that need to offer the appropriate response without at all surrendering his feeling that all humans are equal.
A lot of people make this claim, but I think very few practise it. Whether through deference on the one hand, or greed on the other, I've seen people who insist that everyone is equal acting with a clear sense that whatever their political inclinations, whatever their democratic beliefs, they fail to live up to this apparently simple but actually very difficult expectation they place upon themselves. It might be friends in computer programming saying they should be on a much higher wage, well aware that there are people who are on far less. But they have certain skills they will say, unwilling to see that others just have different ones. It often manifests itself in meeting people who have more status than they believe they themselves possess. They will stand outside a film premiere hoping to glimpse a star; they will tell an anecdote about meeting someone well-known and the content of the story will rest on nothing more than the status of the person they have felt fortunate enough to meet. Frequently, though, it shows itself in no more than as a gesture: when they meet someone their body language betrays whether they feel superior or inferior to others. My inclination has always been towards the deferential, and Sam sometimes jokes that while I'd be unlikely to become a dictator, I might one day be a useful member of a servile class when somebody else takes power.
I watched this meeting from a distance of about fifteen metres: I could see exactly what was happening, but couldn't hear the nature of the exchange. I saw Sam shaking the stepfather's hand firmly, and the mother's more daintily, and perhaps someone viewing the situation from afar, but without knowing anything about the participants involved, would see a meeting of equals, no matter the age gap. It could be a young cafe owner meeting his accountant, where I suspect that this type of exchange between a father and a prospective son-in-law usually carries the body language of a manager meeting the owner. I knew Sam wouldn't at all be showing disrespect, but sometimes the question of respect rests on assumption rather than on fairness. The stepfather might have believed he was due recognition that Sam would be unlikely to offer unless specifically earned. I've seen over the years Sam show immense respect towards people, but never because he felt they deserved it; always because they had earned it in the exchange with him. Equally, he believed he didn't deserve anybody's admiration unless in the process of talking to them, or doing something with them, the perception became manifest.
After the greetings, Sam was saying a few words to the mother, and Chloe was speaking to the stepfather, when I noticed the latter pull at the back of Chloe's bra strap through the jumper she was wearing. At that moment I wasn't sure if Sam had noticed what had taken place, or if the mother had seen it too, and over the next few hours in Sam's company, as we went off to a couple of second-hand bookshops, and went for a pint before Chloe finished work, I didn't know whether I should mention it. I had hoped Sam witnessed the gesture so that it wouldn't remain an odd secret between Chloe and myself, but it wasn't until Chloe was quite soon to arrive that he said something strange had happened just after he and the stepfather had been introduced. I said I had noticed it too, but wasn't sure if he and Chloe's mother had seen it. He asked me what I made of it. I said I was some distance away, but yes, I found it unusual: it would have been strange enough in any circumstances, but after just meeting the new boyfriend? And, Sam added, he did it with the full awareness that both he and Chloe's mother saw him do it. Chloe responded without irritation and anger; with no more than a giggle. How did her mother react, I asked, and Sam said she didn't react at all, suggesting that the stepfather's casual flirtation with his step-daughter was a domestic occurrence, either not to be worried about or a minor perversion constantly appeased. I might now wonder if he told me not long before Chloe was to arrive so that I would know about it but that we wouldn't have the opportunity to dwell upon it. When Chloe came through the pub door he asked me not to say anything about it again. Did he mean while Chloe was there, or more generally?
A few months passed and. apart from the occasional email, I wasn't in contact with Sam at all. I knew from going to the cafe occasionally that Chloe had been over to see Sam a couple of times, but he never mentioned her in his emails. On one of my visits to the cafe I was with Clara, my girlfriend, and though she had heard a little bit about Chloe from me, and a few things about her from Sam when she had quizzed him one night on his last visit, she had never met her before. We entered the cafe on a clamorous Saturday afternoon, with the windows steamed up on this sharp mid-March day, and the coffee machine swooshing away as bodies bustled around by the narrow entrance. We managed to find seats thanks to Chloe: she asked a couple sitting on a bench to shift up and create space for us in a manner that might have seemed impolite coming from someone else.
After the drinks came, served to us by Chloe and where I managed briefly but properly to introduce Clara to her, I asked what she thought. I expected Clara to say that she was nice, that she seemed friendly, that she was good at her job. Instead she said that she could see a person who wanted to please everyone. I realised that she was answering the question not as if she had just met a stranger, but met a woman who happened to be Sam's girlfriend. She had said on a number of occasions that Sam's problem was that he always wanted to please himself. He was a nice man, charming and very friendly, Clara never doubted that, but he didn't know how to compromise. I thought again of the day in the cafe where I saw Chloe giggle after her stepfather grabbed at her bra strap, and wondered if people can compromise too far.
Over the next few weeks I would think quite often about what Clara had said, thinking that maybe Clara was more like Sam than I might have thought - or rather that where Sam was individualistically selfish, Clara was socially selfish. While Sam would often acknowledge that he would wish to do his own thing, Clara would present what she wanted to do as the normal thing. Even that Saturday afternoon, she suggested we go into the town centre, look around the shops and get a coffee. I had wanted to finish a book I'd been reading each night before falling asleep, had forty pages left and wished to finish them in one go. But it was Saturday afternoon, she said, we should be out and about, doing something. That is what people do on Saturday, she added. Sam would never have offered such a formulation; he probably wouldn't have tolerated anybody offering it to him, and almost certainly wouldn't have pulled himself off the sofa, washed his face and combed his hair, and carried on out. The more I thought about the stepfather's gesture, the more I thought about Sam's unconventional life, and the more I yearned for something I couldn't explain.
My job was part-time but well paid: I worked three days a week in an IT company and because my salary was greater than Clara's, who worked five days, she accepted that I was entitled to work a bit less because I had persuaded her that the work was very hard. Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn't. What I did know was that I liked to have a couple of days off not only from work but also from the relationship. I found myself increasingly thinking that one reason why Clara and I had been together for ten years was that while she was in a full time relationship, I was in a part-time one. My part-time job had given me the opportunity to have a part-time relationship too, with nobody noticing, least of all Clara. I had hardly noticed it myself. But somehow Clara's insistence that I finish my book another time, that we should to get out and wander round the town and then get a coffee, had created in me a feeling of boredom and restlessness: a feeling also that I couldn't quite tolerate any more Clara's company.
This would have probably occurred to me years earlier if I hadn't moved to part-time hours about four years before. I had couched it to Clara, and believed myself, that I needed to do so because the work was exhausting and the environment stifling. If I stayed in the job full time I probably wouldn't be in it for that much longer. She was sympathetic, especially when I explained that after tax I wouldn't be very much worse off. Yet after Clara's remark in the cafe, I believed I needed even more time to myself.
Where before on my days off I would slowly tidy up the house in the morning, read by the bay window in the sitting room for much of the afternoon, and prepare dinner not long before Clara came home, during that period I would tidy up before eleven, and be out of the house before midday. I would usually walk for an hour or two out by the university and beyond, and then come back into town, finding myself pulled towards the coffee shop in which Chloe worked. I think I can say it was not only to see Chloe that I would go: if that had been the case I suspect I wouldn't have gone so regularly; I would have felt I was hovering over my friend's girlfriend, and would have been embarrassed to reveal my feelings so obviously in my very attendance. No, there were several attractive waitresses, and young men and women who would sit around for hours working on laptops and/or reading books. It wasn't so much that I wanted to see Chloe; I wanted to be in an environment that made me feel younger than my years and less predictable in my behaviour. And yet was I being honest with myself?
When I then got an email from Sam saying he would be coming over the following weekend I was relieved twice over. I was happy that he was going to be in Ireland and knew that we would probably have the chance to do what we would usually do: go for a couple of long walks and talk about whatever happened to be passing through our minds; it was as if a humorous undercurrent we had developed as undergraduates created an underpinning that meant no subject was taboo. I knew I wanted to talk to him about feeling exhausted with Clara. I was also happy though because I didn't feel any jealousy knowing that he would be coming over to see Chloe: I was worried that this increasing irritation and frustration with Clara might have been because of developing feelings towards Chloe. It seemed not.
Of course since he started seeing Chloe, Sam would stay over at her place rather than ours, but Cork is a small town and even people living on one side or the other aren't very far away. We were living up by Clarence Terrace; Chloe was living along the road from the cafe in the town centre on the other side. We would meet most days, often in the cafe, and while I hadn't fallen for Chloe I envied Sam's existence more than I ever had before. It was as though I had always acknowledged Clara's perspective on Sam as the appropriate one: that he kept picking the wrong woman. But there I was with someone for ten years and increasingly feeling that I had chosen badly. As I saw Chloe come over and give Sam a cuddle in what she called a hug break, as she would offer the occasional complicit glance while wiping a table and clearing some cups, I thought Sam wasn't picking the wrong women at all. He was picking the right woman for a period of time. This might have seemed like a cynical thought on my part, based on cynical actions on Sam's, but I think what I believed then, and still think now, is that he understood that the difficulties would appear before the ossification took place. He was no more against a relationship for life than anyone else, but maybe his instincts for the unlikelihood of it happening were better than most, and he chose people with whom he could have very intense encounters, lasting a year or two, and then accept, however painfully, that it must end. This is partly why I would insist that Sam was never cynical but, until that period when he was with Chloe, I had thought him misguided: that I'd believed he needed to find someone he could be compatible with, someone where there wouldn't be inevitable fissures out of opposing wants.
Later that evening Clara and I were invited for dinner at Chloe's place. It was a top floor studio flat about a quarter of the size of our apartment, but Chloe lived alone ; though the space was compact she made it feel cosy rather than cramped. We ate in the kitchen/dining area, with the four of us squeezing round the dining table. The two main spaces were partitioned: with the other area a sitting room with a fold down bed. When Clara asked her how she made it so appealing, despite the lack of space, Chloe said she tried to use lamps to create a series of spaces rather like a theatrical production that edits with light: where someone uses the stage to suggest a far greater area than they happen to be working with. She did her degree in interior design and a post-grad in theatrical design. She wanted to work increasingly in a world between the two. She wanted to turn so called interior design into theatrical design: she wanted spaces that we inhabit to be more dramatic and enigmatic.
Clara asked her a few questions about the cafe, and Chloe admitted that she had been involved in the cafe's layout and lighting. It had been a cafe Clara and I hadn't been to before Sam introduced us to it and to Chloe. How could we have missed a space that was so welcoming and atmospheric? Sam explained that before Chloe started working there a year ago it was a different place: she had shown him pictures. It was all strip lit and uniform in its furniture and fittings. She persuaded the manager to sell all the interiors and she could pick up things for almost nothing that would give the cafe a more ad hoc feel. It worked, and within months Chloe had been made assistant. Sam expressed this with a pride that seemed more than that first flush of admiration offered with a lover who can do no wrong. It deepened my envy towards them and created another little chasm that my feelings for Clara would have to cross.
Later that evening as we said goodbye to Sam and Chloe at the door and walked across the town, over and up the hill, I of course couldn't easily convey to Clara that I wished I had been in Sam's place that evening. Yet discussing it might have allowed for the one conversation we could have had that wouldn't have created more distance between us. She asked me how I thought the evening went and I wanted to reply that it had gone: the evening had disappeared and I felt its loss. Instead I said that the conversation was interesting, everyone seemed to have something to say. Clara said of course she didn't dislike Chloe, but perhaps she disliked the way that she seemed so much to want to be liked. I've noticed, over the years, this formula from Clara before: rather than openly admitting that she doesn't care for someone, she couches it in a context that puts the responsibility back onto the other person. She has done it several times with Sam. It wasn't that she disliked Sam's womanising; she just didn't like the idea that it wasn't making him happy. Of a former friend of hers she would say: It isn't that she didn't like the way she dressed, just that she didn't think what the friend wore suited her. It allowed Clara to seem both objective and decent, rather than subjective and judgemental. If I'd noticed it before, never had it so irritated me as it did on that night. Yet I also recalled that moment when Chloe's stepfather had grabbed at her bra-strap and she showed no sign of irritation. Didn't Clara have a point?
I saw Sam a couple of days' later: it was Monday, after work, and we went for a pint at the Triskel cafe bar, an arts centre that showed films. Sam had seen something that afternoon, and it had been a film I'd watched a few days before he arrived at another cinema that was soon to close down. We talked about it for a while, but I sensed he wanted to discuss other things. He said it was reaching the point where it looked like he would need to move to Cork, or Chloe would move to Glasgow, or they would both agree to move somewhere else. He knew there was little money in journalism anymore, and supposed if they moved over to mainland Europe he would have to master two languages: his own so that he could teach English there (doing a TEFL course) and that of the new place. They would probably move to France: her mother still owned a flat there that they had been renting out for years. They could rent it cheaply from her. But he admitted he was fearful, and he didn't know whether this was the natural inclination of someone who would always find obstacles that could pass for excuses (he half-laughed), or that there was something in that moment they both witnessed with the bra strap.
I didn't mention that it had come to mind a couple of days earlier, and I didn't mention Clara's comments about Chloe either, of course. But I did ask him whether he thought that there was an aspect of Chloe's personality that was too acquiescent, too willing to please. He said he would sometimes think so, and this worried him in two quite different ways. The first was that she would go off with someone else. The second was that there were things that she appeared unwilling to confront. I'd never asked Sam how he and Chloe actually got together, but that evening he said it was a bit more complicated than he would have liked to admit.
He met her at a jazz gig to which she was trying to get in. The show had sold out, but he had both a comp ticket and a pass: he handed her the ticket and said, if she could wait until the last minute, there might be standing room only but she would at least get to listen to the show without stealing someone's seat. He didn't see her again that evening, had no idea whether she managed to get in, but the next day he was looking around for a cafe to write up a couple of reviews and went into the one that Chloe happened to be working in. She must have been in the kitchen when he arrived, but a minute or two later, she came over and thanked him for the ticket, and that whatever he wanted was on her. He said all he fancied was a coffee; she replied that this meant she still owed him. It was as busy that day as it so often was: he didn't have the chance to say anything more to her, but as he finished up and started to put on his jacket, she came over and said she really did still owe him. He wanted to ask her to buy him a drink, but instead suggested that he pop in the following day and he promised he would be hungry enough for some lunch.
That afternoon he walked for the first time past the Kino cinema and all the way out to the university. He wandered round it and kept walking a little further out of town, most of the time thinking of this person whose name he only received just as he was leaving the cafe. I am Chloe, she said; I am Sam, he replied. As he talked he was giving me details that suggested a man reminiscing after a break up; not one about to make an important decision. But then, as if noting my thought, said that some of this wasn't really relevant. But what was I said. That of course she had a boyfriend. He didn't know that as he walked around Cork that afternoon and daydreamed about her, but as he came in the next day, as she took her lunch break and ate with him, so he asked a few questions that revealed she was not single. Where was her partner, he asked. He had disappeared for six months on a field trip to Mexico. She offered it like it was an abandonment. Sam asked her why she seemed mildly annoyed and she said it was because there was no discussion about it all. He said he was going, didn't talk about it with her, and certainly didn't suggest she join him. Hadn't she gone out to visit him? He thought it best if she didn't: he would be really busy and she had to admit that she had also been very busy in Cork - helping run the cafe.
They met again that evening, and as they kissed outside a bar along the road from the cafe, she said, casually, she ought to tell her boyfriend it was over. There was something very emotionally ambiguous in her remark he said to me: he couldn't quite work out whether it spoke of the strength of her feelings for him, or the weakness of feeling for her now ex. Was she simply looking for an opportunity to leave her boyfriend; and wasn't she in danger of reiterating the situation with him, another man who would be living elsewhere?
Some of these doubts and fears he managed to express with her before returning to Glasgow. She did email the boyfriend and tell him that it was over; she had started seeing someone else. The ex, she said, seemed to take it well, saying it was understandable: they hadn't seen each other for several months. She even suspected that he had been seeing someone else too, and this might have explained the relaxed nature of his reply. Sam of course wondered whether she was telling him the truth, or shielding him from an emotional chaos that she thought might be none of his business. However, what he believed, and what still troubled him now, was that it had been that easy for her to part from one man and start a relationship with another. Why hadn't she broken up with her ex months ago when he left to go to Mexico? After all, this appeared to be why she found it so easy to start seeing Sam without feelings of guilt. From one perspective it was very simple to see why she could break up with a man who had left her in some way before she had left him, but from another it made him wonder how deep were her feelings: not just towards him, but towards others too.
After he went off to meet Chloe, and I was walking back home, I wondered whether part of this suspicion of how deep her feelings went concerned also that moment when her stepfather grabbed at her bra strap. I suppose Sam wanted to believe this was a sign of Chloe's laid-back approach to life; that even a gesture like that could be incorporated into seeing somebody simply playing a silly game, and not as a gesture tantamount to, and hinting at, sexual abuse. If there is one thing I would say about Sam it was that he liked to get at the bottom of things; it was as if his reluctance to commit to a long term relationship contained within it what might seem a contradiction but was perhaps in his mind a consistency. He liked to investigate thought and feeling, to believe that he understood his partner's motives, her demands and expectations. This might counter the possibilities of being together for many years, I would sometimes tell him, but he said he didn't care. He would prefer a year or two of an intense bond that would then inevitably weaken, than a weaker one that could last for decades. I had never before seen such thoughts reflecting my own relationship with Clara but, as I walked up the steep street to my flat, I was reminded of a conversation the pair of us had not long after we had met, and only a couple of months before I had started seeing Clara.
We were all in Glasgow at the time: I'd been to one of Sam's gigs where he was playing the sax, liked what I heard and asked him when he was next playing. We talked for a while, and after the next gig we had a drink and talked some more. After that we would meet regularly. During one of these chats we talked about women, and he said that a long-term relationship is based on adjacency but meaningful affairs were predicated on both parties remaining vis-a vis. In a relationship that lasts for many years so many resentments and tensions get repressed, so many things become increasingly hard to say and become increasingly unsaid. The two people are walking hand in hand, they tell each other over the phone that they're in love, they have a mortgage, possibly children, and a dog. He said all this with a laugh, as if to say that of course this wasn't how things had to be, but that is how he felt it would be if he were to attempt this life: that would be how it would turn out. I laughed too, unaware that ten years later I would be close to the very person he had described, but without the children and the dog.
Instead of going back to the flat, I kept walking for another couple of miles, and thought that not only was Sam likely to talk to Chloe about his reservations over the break-up with her ex, but also the question of the bra strap, while I couldn't easily talk to Sam about the feeling I had of no longer loving Clara, of wanting to see her only part time and wishing for fewer and fewer 'hours'. Perhaps I could claim that the difficulty of talking to Sam about Clara resided in the textured depth of those feelings, and the loyalty I still felt towards someone who should always come first: even conversationally. But there I was the person in a long term relationship, a companionship which meant we had met each others' parents many times, who would receive Christmas cards addressed to both of us, who would be expected soon to have children, or at least get a dog. And there I was walking around the city reluctant to go home, as if to do so would be to walk into the house carrying within me a lie that seemed to amount not only to a few hours of thought, but a decade of my life.
After walking I looked at my phone and saw it was nine thirty. If I stayed out for another hour Clara would probably be asleep by the time I returned home, and I would be able to keep my thoughts to myself. I hadn't before really given much thought to that phrase, but now it carried an accumulated meaning as I wondered, over the years, how often I had been keeping things to myself - as I kept, in another tired phrase that was also now very meaningful, a relationship going. To keep it going by keeping thoughts to myself; how tired the language and how tired was I as the phrases no longer seemed as exhausted as I happened to be.
I didn't see Sam again before he left, but about a week later I received a longish email telling me that he had talked to Chloe before leaving about the various things that had been bothering him; I said that we should Skype one afternoon when I had the flat to myself. A few days later we talked, and he said to her there was no point the pair of them trying to make commitments to each other if there were preoccupations he had that he wasn't expressing. She said that she wasn't without reservations either: the evening before he left they both explored why it might not be a great idea to stay together, and in the process found many more reasons why they shouldn't part. She had told him that he didn't seem like someone who wanted to stay with anyone for any length of time, and he said to her that was the very thing he wanted, that he had always wanted. Yet what he wanted more was a feeling that he was in constant communication and communion with another: many long term relationships didn't appear to have that he felt. He would prefer to leave than stay in such a situation, and that was partly why he was having the very conversation with her. He asked her about her stepfather's gesture and, rather than suggesting it was nothing, she admitted she had been thinking a lot about that moment and had wanted to bring it up too. Every now and again, she supposed, her stepfather needed to assert himself: to say to her and to her mother that he was the one who brought the money in; he was the one who had brought her up. She was the healthy, attractive and educated woman she supposed she happened to be because he had brought in the large salary that had paid for the good food, the decent school and quality housing. He would offer these little gestures of power, but this was the first time that he had done so in front of anyone outside the family. She had talked to her mother about it, but her mother had asked Chloe not to say anything directly to him: Chloe was now grown up and could live her own life, her mum said, but her mother believed she could not. That without this man, who might be controlling and egotistical but who still loved her, where would she be?
As Chloe expressed these thoughts to Sam, she said that she found it refreshing that she could have this talk with him that her mother couldn't have with her husband; that the possibility of leaving contained within it the freedom to stay together. By the end of the evening they had felt closer than ever before, and agreed that they would find a way of living together.
I also had the opportunity at that moment to deepen my friendship with Sam, but I knew in doing so I was probably going to weaken my relationship with Clara. It is as if the intimacies we share with friends at the beginning of our relationships become the secrets we withhold from them later on: that the complicity is with our partner and not with our friend. And then something changes: we find that we no longer share that complicity with them, and become surprisingly lonely as we cannot quite talk to the one we once loved, nor betray them to the friends we know. Of course Sam would often ask how things were going with Clara, would ask if we were going to get married, whether we wanted children. But I always found a way to change the subject, to talk about things that might have hinted at my dissatisfactions without revealing them.
This time I voiced them directly and without a prompt. I told him that he may have had a series of relationships suggesting someone who couldn't be committed, but perhaps he searched for a much deeper commitment and so consequently the relationship would have to end. He would demand of it an openness and directness many retreat from ever facing, and the couple becomes ever more secure. Yet not internally, but externally: they aren't in a house with walls, but in a prison with bars. Perhaps Chloe's mother, I said, had more bars than many, but I suspected I had a few of my own.
By the end of the conversation the friendship had deepened and the ten year relationship with Clara was over. Do I exaggerate? Perhaps, but three months later I had moved out of the flat; within a year I had left Cork and was living in Dublin, transferring to our larger office in the capital. By the time I had moved there, Sam had moved to Cork - he managed to find work as press officer for the jazz festival, and also quickly managed to get some gigs in the town. Sam and Chloe didn't plan to stay for that long - two or three years at most, and then they would move back over to Glasgow, or over to Paris. I would now see him quite often, either in Cork or in Dublin, and whenever he would talk about his own plans, they always included Chloe. I said to him once that this was a first for him: that he never before incorporated anyone in his life so completely that he would start thinking for two. He said he hadn't met anyone before with whom he could so easily share his thoughts or express his reservations. That, for him, didn't weaken what he had with Chloe - it strengthened it.
We were talking in a Dublin pub for a couple of hours before he got the last bus to Cork. After I saw him off at the bus station I walked back to my one bedroom, barely furnished flat, feeling an odd sort of sadness. I wasn't at all thinking of Clara, or rather any melancholy I felt had nothing to do with regret over our breaking up. Maybe it was closer to sorrow that we had stayed together for ten years without at all exploring our reservations and doubts. I also felt guilty that I had eaten up ten years of Clara's life ; fed her false hopes without the sort of nourishment that can come from calling feelings into question rather than assuming that we are holding a love together by not doing so. In all our years together Clara never said that she was insecure, and there at the end of it I walked away as if that security hadn't been worth very much at all. Clara of course hated me for doing so, and I am relieved she is living in Galway now, and that she started seeing someone else not that long after our break up. I won't be surprised if they get married, and I hope Clara will have children if she wants them: it was a subject we never directly addressed, even if her fondness for her two nieces and her nephew were constantly manifest. I also found myself thinking of Chloe's parents again, and wondered what sort of thoughts and feelings could be left unsaid as a stepfather feels entitled to assert his authority while his wife looks on, knowing that a great chasm of power existed in her silent acquiescence. Perhaps Clara's was a silent acquiescence too, and what I saw for a decade as the remarks of someone who wanted the conventional maybe contained within them a wish not at all to rock the boat that was actually without much navigation. I find myself here adopting the metaphorical as if to find in it the hope I feel when I think of Sam and Chloe, and the sadness I feel when thinking of others whose sense of commitment might hide a lack of contentment, and a lack that will eventually turn to contempt. This was how I would describe my feelings towards Clara in that last year, and a contempt she hardly deserved.
But I am also reminded of a moment in the cafe not long after I first saw Chloe as she was serving awkward customers without any irritation. I could never have imagined Clara doing so without showing frustration on her face, offering sarcasm in her voice, and including a look of disdain for the customers but directed at her friends nearby. If for Sam the moment that he had to call into question his affair with Chloe came when her stepfather pulled at her bra, and then found a way of talking about it, maybe I knew that I didn't want to continue seeing Clara when I saw Chloe respond so well to those customers. I really don't at all believe I fell in love with Chloe, but certain people, certain gestures, can perhaps make us fall out of love with the people we are with, and this appeared to be one of those moments.
I am not sure what I now seek, but while before I would have thought that Sam was the one who was not very committed, as he moved from one person to the next, now I am more inclined to think it was me who was much less so: staying with the one person for a decade without asking the sort of questions of myself, and of Clara, that would have shown in intention, and not just in years, that we would wished to have spent our life together.
© Tony McKibbin