Look Away Now
Look Away Now
The carriage doors closed with a sigh as heavy as my heart, then slid back open, catching on their rubber stops with a deep thunk, paused, and closed again. Tentatively this time, as if expecting further interruption. Someone holding the door open in another carriage? As I sat down, you merely redirected your gaze. Last-minute boarder with bag trailing behind caught in the jaws of the Northern Line’s Scylla? You didn’t seem to care, just stared right through my eyes. Not into my soul, as the saying goes, but right through. It was as if your knowledge was so deep as to render me transluscent. Not even irrelevant. And yet, of course, gaze is not directed but received. Your eyes merely processed the various wavelengths of light reflected at you that you might perceive them as images. The I reflected at you was even then strangely inactive. My most striking feature, the squid-ink black of my hair, would only appear so due to its failure to reflect. What is is because it is not. Who, now, is the intruder?
I had sat down directly opposite you. There was a spare seat beside you but there was not where I had to be. I could not be next to you. Not tonight. Perhaps not ever. If I sat beside you I could not experience the intrusion, the invasion, the insignificance of your expression. That blank, knowing ignorance that unravelled as I spoke.
‘If you want me to say no, you'd better learn how to ask.’
That was all that I had said. No more. No less.
‘There is only room for one no. Everything else is a yes.’
That had been your reply. The discussion itself long-forgotten, the aftermath resonated through the evening. I saw your logic. After all, it is merely Popperian prescription. You can prove something true as many times as you wish, but need prove it wrong just the once. So for you, it’s yes until you say no. The yes is a continual state of affairs. The implicit affirmative. But this, I feel, leads only to darkness.
‘But it’s simple,’ you said. ‘Simple.’
And so it appeared. And that evening.
It had started six months before.
It was our first argument. Over the most trivial of acts. It had occurred at the cinema, and it stuck in my memory as a sort of ne plus ultra, here be dragons, an abandon hope, all ye who enter here. It was as part of a film studies course you were teaching at an arts centre, while riding the crazy train of applying for every academic post in the Western hemisphere. We had gone to see an Eastern European arthouse movie; subtitled, bleak, relentless. And quite long. Actually, extremely long. In between the bleakness, and there was an awful lot of bleakness, were great scenes of people walking. Old women with baskets on their heads. Young women with babies on their hips. Old men with wooden pitchforks. Young men with intent. If the people weren’t walking, they were marching en masse, improvised flags waving, songs of solidarity on their lips. Over the course of three and a half hours the dust kicked up by the sandals and hobnails and sticks dried the lips and tongues and sapped the revolutionary fervour in the characters, if not the majority of the audience. It appeared that for all their intent, for all their hither and thither, the cast merely exchanged one expression of bleakness for another. And then there was the whale. You were engrossed. I was fidgety.
As the credits marched down the silver screen in suitably inexorable fashion and the cast walked a little more for good measure, I had turned to grab my jacket from the next chair in preparation for levering myself upwards. I stumbled. I was making a comment about it being ironic that I’d lost the use of my legs while watching this of all films when I felt your hands brush the back of my neck. You hit one of those spots, and I shivered, shaking you off, but you had told me to stay still and I felt your fingers under my collar and I had said something like sorry, mum, and you had sighed and said what’s your problem I’m just tucking in your label it was sticking out and I’d said you ashamed to bring me to see such a right-on film when I’m not wearing a hair shirt maybe you should start a new fashion line, hair shirts and hessian and you’d said for god’s sake get over yourself and I’d said me? me? that’s rich, coming from you. Check your fucking privilege, and you’d just smiled over your shoulder and said can’t take this one anywhere. Are we convening at the bar? and we exited grins rictus tight and ordered drinks.
I then spent a lifetime fending off the group’s worthies, all bleeding hearts and solidarity, as they sallied forth with articulations of the cinemascope’s presentation so precise that they could only have come from repeated viewings allied with dogged reading of critical literature of the most abstruse nature. I drank and humoured them with questions about shoes. They appeared not to have given a moment’s thought to the shoes. Considering the amount of walking that had occured in the film, this omission amazed me. Why, I asked, has no-one thought to measure the steps taken by the various characters, and sought to make statistical comparisons, statistically validated observations. Empirical deconstruction was, surely, the place to start.
Not once did I look my interlocutors in the eye, however. I directed my gaze straight over their shoulders. As I confused one half of your film studies group, you systematically worked the other half, speaking only to the good looking, charismatic ones, the ones you privately denigrated as lightweights, idiots, dumb blonds, even. The images of relentless walking onscreen were now replaced by ones of your relentless flirting. You shone in the reflected light cast by the adoration of your students. You laughed at their jokes, nodded sagely at their critique, smiled at their compliments. They were everything you despised, everything I was not, and every so often you would glance at me, see that I was watching, smile and get back to work.
I cracked. I walked up to you, took you by the arm, excused myself to the confused and intellectually slight student to whom you had been flashing your best winning smile, and marched you around what was almost the corner. When we had followed enough of the wall’s curve to be out of sight, I stopped, pushed you against it and asked you what the hell you thought you were playing at.
You simply smiled, and began to do something with your hand behind your back. It was a recessed handle, and as it clicked the wall seemed to give way, swinging inwards. You had pulled me into what I now realised was the disabled toilet, shut and locked the door, and kissed me full on the mouth while simultaneously taking my hand and pressing it between your legs and into your wet excitment. You mumbled something like ‘fucking idiot, what kept you?’
It was in the middle of fucking that one of us pulled the emergency cord. The alarm came on in the toilet as well as elsewhere, which just gave us time to escape before ‘help’ arrived. Dishevelled and half-dressed, we disappeared down the stairs chased by the shouts of the manager, and fled into the damp autumn night where a dark alleyway gave us enough privacy to finish what we started.
That was how we finished an argument. How we used to finish an argument. We didn’t just stare.
But something else changed that night, too.
It was the first sign of something having gone wrong. Just the one, unexpected slip. We thought nothing of it at the time, but tonight, tonight it was neither unexpected nor was it something to think nothing of.
Tonight, at dinner, you took my hand and placed it between your legs you said something like ‘It may be no good for soup, but a resting tremor isn't all bad.’ In that one movement, with that one sentence, you turned me from lover to laughing stock. Soup. Soup for fuck's sake. Followed by steak. You did wait, but not for long. You took my plate and began cutting my meat.
‘Infantile,’ I said. ‘Yes. It’s simple. You infantalised me. Immediately after introducing me to the table as your significant masturbator.’
‘Don't be so melodramatic,’ you said. ‘I do it all the time at home.’
‘Home being the operative word.’
‘Oh, please. You could have just said no.’
‘At the table? And then you turn me into a child. I was surprised you didn't give me a bib.’
‘Like I said. The word no is always available.’
‘No. It’s not.’
‘Don’t be pathetic.’
‘How can I say no when to everyone you're being the dutiful partner, the long-suffering carer, the brave one. I’m the one who's fucking ill, and yet if I’d told you how your taking my plate away made you feel, the whole room would have added abused wife to your hagiographic taxonomy.’
‘You needed help. You were struggling. Your steak was about to follow your peas off the plate.’
‘You might have asked.’
‘You might have said no.’
‘Sometimes no doesn’t mean no. Sometimes it means something very different.’
‘This is our stop.’
‘No it isn’t,’ I said.
I watched you stand, swing yourself round by the handrail and step onto the platform. Then you stopped, turned, and looked at me.
‘Well?’ You said.
And the carriage doors slid shut.