“Tell me a story”

“I’ll need to be quick. Too quick maybe, for that.”

“Oh, it’s plenty of time. He takes ages when he’s had a few. I’d fancy another, when we get a chance.”

“I’ll tell you a story about what I thought you were. How’s that?”

“What you thought I was? Have I disappointed out so much or exceeded your expectations?”

“No, not that, not like that…about what I thought you were doing, what you maybe had done.”

“When? Up till now, till tonight?”
“No…not exactly….to be honest, I’d stopped thinking of you at all, till I saw you lumbering through the shop with that pile of books.”

“I’ve always bought more than I could manage. That’s not changed. You knew that about me so it couldn’t have been such a shock. Unless. But what did you think I’d become”

“Oh…you’d been growing already into it, whatever it was I thought you would have been by now. Adopting his way of thinking, of talking even, the phrases and the manner. The timing. It seemed that the transformation wouldn’t be complete—since there was only so much further you could go, and not much. But that was the point, you’d have stopped, stunted in that line of development and then curled against yourself, like an obdurate ingrown toenail.”

“You’re horrible.”

“I mean to be—it seemed a horrible thing to happen to you, to be so, so, compromised in yourself, as if you couldn’t have found another way of being a person.”

“So, you aren’t having a go? You thought it was really going to be like that—that I was really going to be like that?”
“I didn’t know you especially well, you know. While we are being honest-“

“Why stop now?”

“well, we are being honest, and I like it, more now like this than when we were then, which is the point. We were always peripheral to one another, sharing a seminar room, a drink after, but”

“And you wanted more?”

“No, no, not at—not that. But tonight when you ran over to me, waving, it did seem like—and I went along with it, hugged you and felt really happy, I did—well, it felt like we had known each other better than we did, and we had both decided to make believe.”

“I see. So was it relief that I hadn’t turned out the way you thought I would, or did you not even know or care, and just decide that we would play at being other people entirely, for the benefit of ourselves, I suppose.”
“Of him, I supposed.”

“Of him? Oh, we are, as you’ve gathered, far beyond needing an audience to establish our boredom with one another.”

“I don’t think I guessed that, and wouldn’t have thought it at all. I just assumed you wanted to let him see you had known me, to make an excuse to talk, to avoid having to fish for the term, former acquaintance or friend. It seemed kind of you and I was taken in, and assumed he was too.”

“He doesn’t care one way or other. He’s still not back, you’ll see. Gone to the bar probably, for a drink and a chat with the bartender, or a waitress, or some sad couple who he thinks might recognize him.”

“I didn’t.”

“No, but you’re American, and he’s not on the telly. Here there’s just an outside chance that he might be recognizable still, a decade out”

“Is that when you met, a decade ago? When he still had the polish of fame and success on him? Is that what did it? Did he save you from the temptation to keep trying to become what you couldn’t?”

“The in-grown nail again. God. You have thought about me with remarkable intensity considering how little we did think about one another back then.”

“Did you meet him when you were still in the States? Or were you back here already?”

“I’d been planning to move to London already, had made plans. I finished the degree not long after you—didn’t drag my feet and agonize like the American grad students need to do—and had already made the plans, thought I’d freelance or try to get picked up as a blogger for The Guardian or something, and was here on a visit to scout things out when I met him.”

“What’s remarkable to me is that I didn’t think of you with more intensity then.”

“We met in the lobby of the BBC, he had been on a radio program, and I was waiting for a friend, and it happened almost of its own accord, it seems now. Small talk and then small caresses in the back of a bar and my worry that he was married, relief that he wasn’t, till suddenly we were. The whole time in the States seemed nothing at all, just disappeared from view.”
“Ironic. You were the most tribal of anyone, most devoted to the chief”

“I recall you there too, vying for a part during the sacrificial ceremonies, eyeing the blood of the innocents with prurient gleam.”
“There you are now, sounding like the old you”

“Or like the old you.”

“I never told you the story”
“Didn’t you though? I feel like I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Maybe, but not what you most worried about hearing”

“I wasn’t worried”

“Not worried then—but least comfortable”
“Ah, I see why you said ‘worried.’ That mirthful eagerness to dispel my comfort is hardly honorable to admit. But fine then, and if you don’t mind, I’ll order it for us, another bottle of the red please, thank you.”

“He really has abandoned you, hasn’t he?”

“Years ago. But maybe he has given up for the night and gone back to the flat or maybe to the club. I’m not concerned.”
“Our performance didn’t compel. So I should have had him leave, so I would have had her stand and grieve…”

“I don’t think he expected a performance at all. You were the only one who did. Maybe that was off-putting to him. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“But not to you.”

“No, it was to me, but since I had been doing the same, my loathing was split two ways and amounted only to bemused irritation at what we had decided to do.”

“Well, we don’t need to perform anymore. Tell me what you wanted to tell me about what I became. The wine will be here soon and I’ll brace for the discomfort.”

“It’s hardly a long story—the wine might not get here at all.”

“Then your face will be spared a splash if I hate what you say.”

“It’s not that bad, and I’ve built it up so much that I don’t even think it can be made to seem like a story at all now that I think of it. I’ve probably had a glass too many to tell it right.”

“The prolusion is worse than the tale could manage to be. Let’s just be done with it.”

“So you’d rather not hear?”

“Be done with it any way you’d like, with the result being that we move on and out into the clear of the cold night, finding another bar, making whatever mistake we make, or calling our cars and counting our losses.”

“It was just. Just the thought of you hanging around the city for a year or so, gaining a part-time job doing scraps of work on this project or that, writing the occasional newspaper review, and then meeting and marrying someone from another department, at another school and trailing them to a town in the Midwest where you’d find time, in a few years, to teach at least one class, to work on some sort of manuscript, just enough sustenance for the habits you’d have formed, the phrases and the intonation, like an incubation chamber for the half-personality softened into, while having a child or two…”

“A carelessly calloused view of life. Sad too. How many children did you say you had?”

“Two, but I didn’t say it was the most persuasive story, not the richness of life in its parts”

“Or in yours apparently. Your wife, then, when did you meet her?”

“Afterwards, when I’d moved to New York and entered the publishing world. She was in the marketing division. That helped me get out of the editorial line, actually, let me see what else there was to do all of it.”

“It’s Romantic that. Not a story I’d have come up with for you.”

“It wasn’t to the point really—any of that. Just a white collar reverie. You must though have at least speculated, not on me, but on some of us, or them, the people we were with there?”

“I have. I’ve even thought of you, but the thoughts didn’t take flight into speculation. Or they haven’t for some time. There’s only so much of the past that, that makes a bid for caring and then, amidst everything else, the bid isn’t high enough, hardly ever.”

“A mercenary memory you have. Sad too.”

“It’s not ceasing to remember—it’s ceasing to pretend that remembering can become something else, a handle on the actual, on the present or future.”

“My god, you make me sound like a sentimental dope.”

“I don’t mean to—I don’t mean to accuse you, it’s not any better than speculation in another form, really; speculation on when speculation can justifiably cease, or when it’s not caring anymore but prurience of another sort, a rifling around someone’s chest of clothes in the hopes of knowing what sort of man would want to strip those layers off. At that point, it’s your own need to fantasize that you are serving, not even a fantasy about the person who wears the clothes.”

“I’m not sure what to make of that. I am being sentimental. You didn’t occupy an especially large chunk of my grey matter. I’d say it was a few incidental neurons firing, as we know they do, by chance association, and usually with a pleasant warmth.”

“That’s kind of you to say. It’s all of it kind, in its way, your remembering me enough to make me fodder for a bitterness you must feel towards those years, a sort of revenge fantasy on the future we were promised?”

“Yes, that might closer to the truth. I’m not sure it was you, either. With others, even others I hardly knew, I didn’t much care what happened.”
“It was because of what I was threatening to become: the horror of the ingrown toenail was too great for you to look away.”

“It’s better than Gogol”

“Or worse.”

“He’s surely gone now, right?”

“Are you eager for him to have left? But yes, he texted and wished us a goodnight, requested that I make an excuse, which I feel would be insulting at this stage of our honesty”

“I don’t know that you’ve been honest with me at all”
“I’ve not been dishonest, but there’s not enough for me to reveal, no secret story about you I could offer”

“I have enough to go around.”

“There’s more?”
“Well, there could be, if you’d like to hear.”
“Ah, the man from the Midwest, it was you, wasn’t it? Not a student from another department, but you, waiting for me to finish.”

“I didn’t say as much, but I could have. That’s how speculation works; it’s a tremendous advantage of asking memories to grow fake fruits. There’s no obligation towards consistency.”

“But it must have been that—surely, why else could you possibly have cared so much as to think of me at all?”
“Is your vehemence suspicion or desire? Is that what you would have liked? Then, so be it. It was me.”
“And you thought I would be the one to move with you. Do we want a third bottle? I think just a glass of port.”

“Tawny for me.”

“But you left instead, and wondered what if you had stayed”

“I wondered if I had cared enough about you to have stayed whether that is what might have ensued, our moving away together.”
“But you never cared.”
“Not enough. But enough to wonder after as to whether I might have.”

“I like that thought.”

“We would both be speaking the way we did then.”
“Maybe we are speaking like it still and have just forgotten what it sounds like to be speaking any other way”

“That’s a delicious thought. Or have just forgotten because we aren’t there, because the tones and phrases and mannerisms don’t matter the same way anywhere else.”

“But we would remember it now, here, being together, wouldn’t we?”

“I guess so. It’s probably not how we sound anymore. It’s all moot, this being now, and that then, and the thought of other ways of having reached this point having no bearing at all, and no roots into real memories even, as you said.”

“But here we now, nevertheless.”

“Nevertheless, we are.”


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