I remember reading somewhere a philosopher saying that you can judge a man's character by the way he treats people who have no impact on his destiny. It came to mind when a female friend who became more than that finally explained to me why she had left her husband a couple of years prior.
Fernanda came to Edinburgh a year ago from Argentina. She had been to the city before - around three years earlier she went on a holiday through Europe with her husband - and felt especially touched by Edinburgh, where she stayed for a week during the festival. Visiting Europe coincided with her feeling that she no longer wanted to work very hard for a life she wasn't even sure she wanted, and while her husband stayed with acquaintances in London, she came up for four days to stay with an Argentinean friend who was living in the city. During that week the two friends, who had known each other since school, discussed how far they had diverged in their lives. Ana taught Spanish classes in the city and also yoga, and had a series of relationships in the city. That none of them had worked out did not concern Ana - who said they had to work out anyway? She was thirty one, still had no thoughts of children, and believed life was for living and not for preparing to settle down. Fernanda realized when she said this that she had been settling down for years, and yet she hadn't quite committed to having children. As Ana would take her out to various wholefood cafes, to traditional Scottish pubs with wood beams and open fires, and as they went on long walks around the city and up Arthur's Seat and out to the sea at Portobello and Cramond, so Fernanda wondered what, in Buenos Aires, she had settled into? Was she beginning to see that she had married a man without character?
Fernanda explained to me that she had started seeing Martin at a transformative moment in her own life. She had been studying for an arts degree when the economy collapsed, her family's savings became worthless and it seemed unlikely that for many years the government would have much money to fund the arts. She shifted to international trade, and at the same time split up with her boyfriend. His father was a well known painter, and the dad managed to secure a position at an art school in the States: the son went too. They kept in contact but within a couple of months into her new course she became attracted to a graduate student who was also teaching a few classes a week, one of which she attended. In this new and very different world of finance Fernanda often felt confused, and Martin, noticing when she asked him one or two questions after the class that she was obviously capable of the work, but nervous over the welter of information, decided to help her. Within a month they were a couple, and after the course finished they publicly announced they were together. After he had finished his post-grad and taken a position at the university, they told everyone of their engagement
They were married less than a year later, and were, generally, she supposed, happy until the trip to Europe. Was it because her marriage had collapsed or the Argentinean economy had picked up that she no longer loved Martin she would sometimes jokingly wonder to herself, as though he represented to her a meaning much bigger than her own feelings, and yet at the same time a dilution of those feelings. Was it with her whole soul that she loved Martin, or was it merely her anxious self that needed him?
This, she said, was what she was discussing with Ana when she was in Edinburgh, and it was with this friend that she was reminded of her self before Martin, the person who would rush off to galleries, to catch films, to hear poetry readings. As Ana took her to these very events, and as Fernanda found once again the excitement she used to feel in books, films and art, so she could see that she was beginning to resent Martin, resent how rarely they would do things that sustained their inner being over their social persona.
This was the very language she was using to describe her feelings to me, and she said what was interesting was that when she began to feel them, and began to describe them to Ana, she felt devoid of the vocabulary. Perhaps she never possessed it; maybe for all her interest in the arts, she always saw it as an exciting, soul sustaining existence, but not one that she felt she needed especially to articulate. All those years ago, when she studied the arts, she wanted to learn. After that trip to Edinburgh she needed art to develop, she said, a vocabulary of feeling.
That was the first time Fernanda and I had really talked, and though she used what I found a useful term, I didn't feel she had explained it to me, and I sensed behind the term lay more than simply a need for art to do the explaining. Did she not also find this vocabulary of feeling in her own active existence: were there not problems with her parents when she said she was splitting up from her husband, and especially when she said she was moving to the other side of the world?
At this stage perhaps I was projecting my own impressions onto the situation. Though I had never thought of a vocabulary for my feelings, I am not so sure if I did not separate from my long-term girlfriend a couple of years ago because I believed that the vocabulary she was seeking for her emotions had become too narrow. We had been together for eight years and Alex was working for a publishing house when I noticed that she was becoming increasingly frustrated at work. Had we separated also because the gap that had opened up between us was, like that between Fernanda and her ex, a difference of emotional expectation?
I don't mean to suggest that Alex's emotions were no longer important to her; not at all, but where in the early years these emotions seemed to want constant expansion; in the later years they seemed to want to be secondary to a certain efficiency her job increasingly demanded. Emotions became superfluous or troublesome: a couple of times she came home crying after her boss questioned the way she had done her work. As I would go to hug her she accepted my hug but felt it was a weakness that she was doing so. Shouldn't she be stronger than that? No, I would say, strength didn't lie in rejecting emotion but in understanding it, no matter if for me hugging was always something I would offer, never demand. Talk to me I said, and she sometimes did and sometimes didn't. Eventually she stopped talking to me about her emotions altogether; and so while it was a surprise when she said she was going to leave me, for there was no talked through reasons for her doing so, these very lack of talked through reasons spoke for themselves. I think the last time she really talked to me was a year before we split up: she said talking to me was good for me but bad for her: I was an art therapist who could use all this emotional chaos in my work; working in publishing, what use did she have for it?
As she left Edinburgh to take a bigger and better job in publishing in London, I felt that she had chosen to escape from feeling still further, as though I believed certain places - and especially big cities - gave less space for our emotions than small cities and towns. Alex didn't disagree, but I knew I wasn't exactly happy with this formulation, and it took me some months to come up with an example that would counter the sense that small is necessarily beautiful.
What I hadn't told Fernanda, while she was telling me about her life, was that perhaps I was deliberately not telling her about mine. I hadn't said to her that between the first time she had been in Edinburgh, and the second time when she moved here, that Ana and I had a brief relationship that lasted a couple of months. It was a while after Alex had left me, and one afternoon Ana and I for the first time started talking - though we would often see each other around and had mutual friends we had never been alone together. We had a few drinks, talked all night, and made love, or perhaps just had sex, the next morning. But after a month or two there was no energy to it; and we parted without anybody ever knowing we were even lovers. Maybe I assumed Ana had told Fernanda about me, but then Ana had many partners, and it was not through Ana that I met Fernanda.
Maybe it was how Fernanda and I first met that made me want to keep the assignations with Ana from her. For Fernanda and I didn't meet in Edinburgh at all; we met in a pub in Aviemore in the Highlands. I was up visiting a friend for a week, and she was touring the north for a few days, having moved to Edinburgh, she said, only a couple of weeks before. We talked for a while in the pub, and I said that we should meet up when we were both back in the city. We exchanged e-mails, and met up a week or so later in the capital. The conversation I've described above took place after four or five meetings, and it was after it that we went back to my flat and she stayed the night.
As I woke the next morning - or rather lunchtime - I went into the kitchen, put on the kettle and wondered whether I should tell Fernanda that I had slept a couple of years ago with her childhood friend. She knew that Ana and I were acquaintances - how many people involved in the arts in Edinburgh weren't? - but somehow I felt to tell her we had been lovers would have been, for want of a better term, a metaphysical slap in the face. So often when we talked Fernanda would mention the importance of signs, of how she would see life as fate, and that what made her drop out of her life, leave her husband and move to Edinburgh, were a mixture of signs she saw and feelings she felt. For example, she would say, when she first visited Edinburgh there were a number of signs, rather than reasons, that made her think she should make it her home. She had read once that Borges reckoned it was the only city other than Buenos Aires that he wanted to live in; she recalled that the boyfriend she had before Martin had been to the city for a month during the time they were going out together; also, that at a party in Edinburgh somebody was drinking a bottle of Argentinean wine that was her favourite and hard to get outside of Argentina but that a friend visiting the country had brought it back, and that the host happened to have opened the bottle that night.
These were some of the examples she rattled off, and I wondered if by telling her about my brief liaison with Ana I would be undermining the sense that we were destined to meet. If I was fated to have an affair (however briefly) with her high school friend eighteen months before, would Fernanda's sense of destiny be shattered?
For the next few months Fernanda and I saw each other almost every day. She didn't have many friends in the city, and about a month after she arrived Ana moved south to Brighton. If Fernanda believed in destiny, I thought I believed in pragmatics, and I felt a certain duty towards Fernanda believing that she had stayed in the city to be with me. I wanted to be with her most of the time, but I also knew that even if I didn't, that I ought to be with her and felt a certain obligation sometimes in her company. I knew also that if her belief resided in fate, my withholding of information somehow left me in a different, more practical world of rationality and emotional fairness: it again left me with a sense of duty.
I'm not so sure if it wasn't until a year later, though, and very recently, where I would have claimed I was in love with Fernanda; that it took me that long to work through my feelings. My only previous girlfriends were Ellen, whom I was with from sixteen to twenty one, and Alex, whom I shared my life with from the age of twenty two to thirty. I knew I loved slowly, as though I loved less on the basis of instant passion than an accumulation of meaning. I suppose I couldn't really believe in love at first sight; it was all too sudden. But I am not sure whether my feelings of love for Fernanda were really due to the accumulation of time, my first visit to her home country, or perhaps especially a telling little detail.
Throughout our time together in Edinburgh Fernanda insisted that I must go with her to Argentina, and so it was that I took a month off work, and Fernanda gave up her part-time job in a health food shop to visit her home country over the Christmas period. As I met her family, as each Sunday we were there, her father would put on a barbecue and the way he fussed over his family, the way he hugged his two daughters and play wrestled with his grown up son, I became acutely aware of my own family's lack of touch. I could never remember my father or my mother hugging me; and I say this not because they never did - they may have - but that I had no memory of them doing so was telling. It seemed to me to that my body had no recollection of this physical gesture, and perhaps helped explain why I never really had any expectation that I should receive a hug.
What was most surprising about me, Fernanda, would often say, was that I seemed to have no need for human warmth - it was always Fernanda who would come to me, and she felt that while I reciprocated, it would have been nice if I occasionally demanded a hug from her. It was during this recent trip to Argentina - perhaps because I was so far from home and had never before travelled outside of Europe, perhaps because I had no more than a few words of Spanish, or most especially because of another reason that I shall soon divulge - I started feeling the need of her hugs.
One evening, shortly before the end of the trip, Fernanda and I were invited by friends of hers to a party in traditionally the artist's quarter, San Telmo, when I started talking to a painter there. We initially discussed what an artist's purpose happens to be, so I said one of the problems I had with being an art therapist was that I would often be frustrated by the idea that bad art could work as good therapy, while he said one of the problems he had with some great art was that it didn't have enough of an affective dimension or, rather, that the purpose of art lay less in its capacity to make us feel than to make us think. He quoted a passage from a book he didn't much like, but whose point was well made: that the painting would be non-existent but the explanation clear for everybody to see. He wondered as an artist how he could make affective art that wouldn't be conservative. I wondered how I could help people therapeutically without them responding to art that played too easily into their perceptual expectations.
As we talked for a couple of hours and I mentioned that I was living in Edinburgh, at one stage he mentioned that he had a good friend who had lived for a few months in the city several years ago: he had a small exhibition showing during the festival there. He said the fellow painter was a friend from school who had moved to the States around the time of the economic collapse; his father was a well known artist; the father got a job there and the son came and studied under him and various other well known creative figures. At that moment I felt the intense affectivity we were trying to suggest art can invoke, but we know that it cannot quite achieve. I was reminded of another philosopher's comment; that when he lost his son "those masters of speech, the English poets, to him only 'trivialized the actual emotions'". This was of course my own emotional hyperbole, for how could I compare an idle comment with the death of a son? Yet that was hardly the point, and though we talked for another forty five minutes, my body never quite recovered from his brief anecdote.
I parted by saying that I needed the toilet, and instead I slipped out of the flat and went for a walk: Fernanda knew my penchant for periods of aloneness, and if she couldn't see me around she would have assumed I would have gone for a short stroll. As I did so I felt sure that the emotional journey Fernanda embarked upon during that first visit in Edinburgh included a meeting with her ex-lover. The years seemed to coincide, and how could she not have known her ex boyfriend was exhibiting in the city? Hadn't she said one of the signs for her was that her ex had been in Edinburgh, but many years ago?
When I recall the philosopher saying that one can judge a man's character by the way he treats people who have no impact on his destiny, how are we to judge our own character when someone we do not know impacts on our destiny? It would be wrong to say while I walked around the streets of the artistic quarter, as I looked at men in cafes who all seemed to resemble the man for whom I had a name but no face, I didn't feel anger. I felt temporarily made of glass. I was eleven thousand miles from home and knew that I needed a hug. But from whom could this hug come?
Sitting in the caf after ordering a coffee, I started not so much to relax but to start thinking clearly. What if an ex of Fernanda's was in Edinburgh at the same time as her? Hadn't I even said to her that I couldn't believe only art could register the shift of feeling that she had undergone? Perhaps when she went to Edinburgh she stayed with Ana, but also on occasion met up with her ex. Maybe she realized through this ex -whether they had become lovers or not - that her feelings were no longer so strong for her husband. And if I hadn't told her about my liaison with her childhood friend - why should she tell me about her ex lover from a decade before being in the city at the same time as she was?
As I finished my coffee and started walking back to the party, I offered myself a wry smile as I thought how for over a year I had been protecting Fernanda from the truth of my fling with Ana partly because of the fatalistic element I believed she had given to our love. But with my reaction in the party wasn't I the one who had equally given it a fatalistic dimension, believing that, since it was an act of fate on Fernanda's part, I ought to honour that by not telling her I prosaically had an affair with her friend? What I didn't know for certain of course was whether Ana had talked to Fernanda about us, or whether Fernanda had a fling with her ex-boyfriend. I am not even sure how important these details are; my instinct when I returned to the party wasn't even to ask Fernanda these questions; it was merely to ask her for a hug. Maybe we should judge a man's character not by how he treats people who have no impact on his destiny, but how healthily we react when someone we don't know curiously impacts on ours. I felt that evening, where nobody seemed to have noticed that I had gone except for Fernanda, who accepted my excuses and was surprised by my need for an embrace, that sometimes a quietly monumental event takes place so virtually, so tenuously, that its impact on the immediate world, let alone destiny, can barely be registered. But as Fernanda hugged me strongly back, I knew that no amount of questioning on my part, no amount of answers on hers, could equal the assurance of that gesture. It might be a tired convention, but at the same time it was surely part of a vocabulary of feeling I could usefully learn.
© Tony McKibbin