A Secret (Short Story, I guess?)

One of my friends was taking a creative writing class as part of his Master’s and I’d been giving him feedback on some of it.  I’d felt guilty just criticising his work so one week I decided to write a piece to the same brief.  An attempt at empathy.  The brief was about “a scene between two characters, one of whom is finding it difficult not to reveal something to the other”.  This is what I came up with.

A Secret

“Thanks for doing this.  I know it was short notice.”

“It’s honestly not a problem.  I was actually going to call you anyway.  I needed to give you this.”

Patrick reached into the side pocket of his coat and attempted to remove the wrapped, Blu Ray copy of Die Hard from it.  He’d put it in with longest sides of the case parallel to the bottom of the pocket, since otherwise the wrapping protruded upwards.  The bright blue and yellow Batman motif on the paper didn’t look particularly inconspicuous against his black, woollen coat; the fact that he was still wearing it in a heated café looked even less so.  He’d blown the smooth reveal, since he was now fumbling, half-turned-round in his seat, trying to remove the gift by force.  He was conscious that in this particular position his gut appeared at its least attractive, but he’d anticipated this and was wearing a loose black t-shirt.  Patrick fleetingly compared himself to Sherlock Holmes but was shaken from the fantasy by the realisation that his hand might now have been stuck in the pocket along with his dignity.  Douglas watched the spectacle with impatience, but obvious affection.

“Just…Just gimme a second here.”

“I’d offer to help but I’m genuinely worried that our hands would touch, our eyes would meet and we’d have…a moment.”

Patrick was too rapt by his pocket puzzle to respond.  He’d abandoned the brutish approach and was now carefully widening the pocket with one hand while sliding the case out with his formerly stuck one.

“THERE! FINALLY! Fuck sake.”

He tossed the gift onto the table with a nonchalant spin, grimacing at the inanimate object as it landed.  The coffee in both cups vibrated slightly at the impact.  Both men thought of Jurassic Park.

“Can I guess?”

“Seriously?”  Patrick shook his head.  “If you’re wrong, it’s a pointless exercise. If you’re right, I feel bad and you rob yourself of the intended experience.  But if your insecurity runs deep enough to sabotage the giving of a gift, then by all means…”

Douglas looked at Patrick, then at the box with the exact dimensions of a Blu Ray, then back at Patrick, smiling knowingly this time.  He slid the case off the table, maintaining eye contact with his friend, and dropped it into the open satchel next to his chair.

“I’ll save it for later.”

“Fine.  You didn’t text me for coffee on the off-chance I had a gift to give you.  What’s up?”

“Well, that sort of leads into it nicely.  I wanted to talk to you about Sarah.”

Patrick’s demeanour remained unchanged, save for the socially expected frown to denote the beginning of a serious discussion, but he was already panicking.  This was a subject on which he had been wrong in the past and on which he now had privileged information.  Information that was not to be shared.

“OK, go ahead.  But you’ve always ignored my advice in the past so I don’t know what you expect to gain from it this time.”  Patrick winced at the pang of embarrassment that shot across his chest as he attempted to blame his inadequacy on his friend.

“I value your perspective, and I don’t think anyone knows her, or even us, as a couple, as well as you do at this point.”

“OK.”

“Sarah and I have been having some trouble recently.  Or, well, I mean, maybe we’ve always been having trouble.  But these past few weeks, and even before that, she just seems really distracted, y’know?  Like, I know she’s busy with work.  We both are.  But I just keep getting the sense that almost any time I want to interact with her she’s just tolerating me and not really…engaging.  Like when I bought up going away this weekend she was totally indifferent.  She never made a suggestion about where to go and was just like, “I suppose” or “whatever you want, baby”.  I just…I feel like I’m way down her list of priorities and it’s making me feel like a fool.”

Patrick knew why Sarah didn’t want to go on a city break this weekend.  Patrick knew why she’d been distracted, at least for the past few weeks.  He decided to ask a hopeful question to see if the answer would relieve him of responsibility and maybe stop his viscera feeling weightless.

“How long have you been feeling like this?”

“I don’t know, probably just these past few weeks.”

Patrick hoped Douglas didn’t notice him closing his eyes and breathing sharply in through his nose in resignation at the expected outcome of his gambit.

“But now that I think about it, maybe for the past year, I feel like I’ve maybe just been something she thinks she needs somewhere in her life to keep going.  You know, like that particular sweater you don’t ever wear but you’re used to seeing all the way over at the side of the wardrobe when you’re looking through the shit you actually use.”

This made Patrick feel better about his position, but worse about Douglas’s.  And that made him feel guilty.  He felt the dread slither up his spine and the icy sensation caused his entire torso to shiver.  Again he hoped that Douglas hadn’t noticed.  Again he wished he wasn’t wearing a coat and that he could blame the shiver on the cold; the cold in a café with an open fire.

“And I noticed another thing.  She’s been taking the laptop into her study a lot recently.  And closing it when I come in to see her.  I know it’s paranoid but I’ve noted it because it’s new.  And now I’m starting to feel like a stalker.  I mean, neither of us has that attitude where we need to be with the other 24/7 but it seems like now she’s actively hiding something from me.”

Patrick felt himself squirm and quickly moved his hand up to his mouth in a deliberately pensive way to try to disguise the involuntary movement.  He knew what Sarah was hiding from Douglas.  He knew what had been on the laptop screen.  He gave an affirmative grunt to ensure Douglas knew he was paying attention, but he was already playing out scenarios of revelation in his head.  None of them ended well.

“And then there’s…” Douglas’s voice sunk to that half-whisper people use when they’re about to talk about something in public that they don’t want other people to hear, even though no-one else can hear them and wouldn’t want to listen to it anyway. “…the sex.  It’s been at least a month and a half, and that’s even including the odd nonchalant handjob.”

“Hold on, Doug.  Do you mean you have or-”

“Haven’t!”  Douglas was struggling to maintain the whisper.  “And she has the laptop the entire damn time.  I’ve been jerking off to fuckin’…manga I’ve owned since I was sixteen!  I mean, I know it’s normal for couples who have been together as long as we have.  It’s normal that the sex drive drops a little; I read it online.  But, it’s, y’know, it’s reinforcing all of this other shit.”

Patrick didn’t know why Douglas and Sarah hadn’t been having sex.  But he did know which manga Doug was referring to.  His information couldn’t help with either of these things.  But it could distract Doug.  Even if just made Douglas angry, Patrick imagined it would probably break Doug out of the echo chamber he’d constructed for himself.  Patrick was sweating.  He felt a droplet of it run down his side.  But at least this was something he could blame on the coat.

“Look, Doug, I think I should-”

He cut himself when he noticed how upset his friend was. Douglas was sitting hunched over in his chair, has hands hanging loosely over his knees.  He was staring at a point on the table.  It was where the final piece of brownie rested.  The piece they’d both innately agreed to leave uneaten to assuage any guilt and assert their mutual commitment to a healthy lifestyle.  It was obvious that this was not what Doug was concerned about.  His expression was a combination of anger and extreme concentration, the lines on his forehead accentuating his receding hairline.  It was an expression Patrick had seen before, though rarely, and he’d only seen it when Douglas had been holding back tears.

“She forgot my birthday, man.” His voice was pained.  “She was already gone when I woke up this morning.  I checked inside the fucking cereal box for a note.  I felt like an idiot, but I just thought…”

“That sounds rough.  But I really think you should speak to Sarah about this.  Maybe she’s got something going on that you don’t know about, maybe…”

“I think it might be over, Pat.  I-god, this is going to sound so lame-but it’s felt like we’ve been living…beside each other rather than with each other for the past six months.  And it’s not even the first time it’s felt like this.  But then there’s always some…thing, like when her dad died, that knocks us out of it for a week or so.  But I can’t live like this any more.  I can’t.  It’s not fair.  I need to talk to her.”

“I think that’s wise.  How about we get you home?  If she’s there I’ll head on and you can sit down with her.  If not, I’ll keep you company to stop you from going crazy.  We still have to finish Resi 6, anyway.”  This advice was insincere.  Patrick felt his stomach sink a little further.

“Yeah, alright.  I suppose shooting monsters that look how I feel will do me some good.”

Patrick looked at Douglas with obvious concern.

“That was a joke, Pat.”

Doug’s smile was half-hearted.  They looked at each other for a moment, static.  Patrick could see how tired his friend was.  He grasped his shoulder, but the gesture was uncertain.  They took a moment out from their drama to discuss the tip.  Percentages were applied, coins discarded.  As they walked out to the car Patrick couldn’t tell if the weight he felt was Douglas leaning on him or the knowledge that he’d just made something more painful for his friend.

The drive was silent.  Douglas was thinking about the last time he’d touched Sarah’s skin.  At unpredictable times he would close his eyes and exhale.  His head didn’t move from against the rain-soaked passenger window.  He recalled reading that water was supposed to be a symbol of rebirth.  The thought made him sneer.  Patrick was thinking back through their conversation, attempting to deduce the precise point at which he should have told Doug and if it was too late to do so now.  He thought about it for precisely long enough to fail to reach a decision by the time they arrived at Doug’s apartment.

The climb was as silent as the drive except for the echo of the footsteps in the stairwell.  The silence in the desolate hallway was broken only by Douglas extracting his keys from his pocket.  Patrick was still crippled by indecision.  Before he placed the key in the lock Douglas spun around and hugged his friend.

“Thank you.”

Patrick held his head aloft and inhaled to prevent himself from crying.  Doug slapped his back several times the way men do to disengage from a hug and plodded towards the door.  Patrick watched as Douglas turned the key.  He took a step aside so that he couldn’t be seen from the doorway and pressed his thumb and index finger to the bridge of his nose as he looked at the floor, every emotion he had been feeling replaced now only with shame.  Douglas opened the door.

“Surprise!”

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