Chapter XI

Karis was in town and didn’t phone me, but I knew she couldn’t hold out forever. Her letter, if it was at all sincere, indicated a reconciliation between us in the inexplicable tides of romance. It was just a matter of time, and time I had.

So when she contacted me, about two days after the encounter with McRose I just described, I was not surprised, nor did I allow my enthusiasm–my love, that is–to demonstrate itself in the tones of my voice. I played it real cool, like we spoke every day.

She wanted us to get together and go for a walk along the man-made body of water–labeled Mud Lake by nearby residents–near the quiet subdivision where Karis’ parents made their home. As a child, I enjoyed going to this artificial lake with my friends and catching the very real turtles and frogs and snakes along its reedy banks. The ground by the waterside was fascinatingly spongy, and beyond the woods there were dunes of white sand piled to sky that I used to run and leap from pretending I was a soldier living out one of those blaze of glory heroics before enduring an equally glorious death.

The place epitomized my childhood joy before my trust in humanity was robbed from me, and I took pleasure from the sense of nostalgia the oasis almost unconsciously brought to mind.

But I have to tell you, I was nervous as hell when I walked to Karis’ parents’ place to pick her up. I was going to have to retrace the steps of my past and face her. In many ways, I was afraid of her. It’s funny that I was felt this way, for there was something about her that was comfortingly kitten-like. Maybe it was because she was quiet and reserved, yet possessed of a devilish playfulness. She was a small girl, perhaps just over five feet, small breasted, with a darker shade of honey brown hair and the most magnificent grey eyes the world has ever known. She may have been quiet and reserved, but she was also a meteor shower against a midnight sky when it came to her blazing emotion. It was this emotion, so different from my calmness, that had me enamoured to the point of fear and trembling.

Shortly after she finally got in touch with me again, we found ourselves walking along the gravel road that ran past the white fenced in pastures of the horse farm on our way to the lake. We didn’t say much, and our walking together reminded me of when we dated. I liked that she never required me to hold her hand or anything when we were in public. That was one of the things that set her apart from other women: the way she just hung out with me and didn’t expect me to entertain her all of the time or smother her with affection; she just liked my company.

When she walked, her face was slightly downcast. She explained once that it had to do with a shaky self-worth, but I considered this to be implausible. Her walk was indicative of her mood, just like when we watched a movie at her house her mouth would inevitably rest in a kissable frown.

I wanted to be the one to help her find companionship in the breadth of human loneliness and the vastness of situational living. I wanted to be her situation.

When we got to the hill overlooking Mud Lake, we looked upon the mirror of blue scattered with rippled disturbances from the wind and upon the rolling white sand dunes separated by a section of forest alive in the colouration of creeping death–all backgrounded by an indifferent sky.

“It’s a perfect day,” she says quietly, looking at me for approval before we hiked down the trail to the lake.

I nodded, awestruck by the female’s propensity to inspire fascination in me from an ordinary comment. That autumn day became beautiful to me.

Earlier, I said that even with a woman the world couldn’t reveal itself as beautiful to me. This is true, but with Karis the world took on a serene “rightness” that can only be described as mocking, for as soon as she would leave my presence the world would fall back into its colourful destitution.

After we hiked down the trail to the lake, we found a clearing in the reeds where could look out over the water and enjoy the warm sun.

“Is this where we’re going to have this out?” I asked.

She just nods, looking down at her hands that played with the ends of her hair: twisting and untwisting.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since you left,” I said.

She doesn’t even raise her eyes to look at me.

“I mean, Karis, in my dreams I couldn’t even escape you: the smell of your perfume, the songs that reminded me of you that I couldn’t escape . . .”

Twisting and untwisting.

“You look really pretty, you know . . .”

“Yeah, you look good, too,” she finally responds.

We were met with uncomfortable silence that had little to do with familiarity. We knew each other and knew that what needed surfacing would imminently surface.

So I convinced her to talk a bit–that was the first step–by discussing what had been transpiring in my life. I elaborated on my career with the strike and all, how I had several poems published, that I was doing a display of my paintings with my professor in Toronto. I even mentioned the Oresteia adaptation. The whole time, though, she kept her gaze slightly lowered, occasionally looking up, but pretty well keeping herself busy with her nervous habit of playing with her hair. She was really pretty in her own demure little way.

She didn’t say much about her own life, though, even though she had done some extensive travelling and had picked up another degree since the last time I had seen her. I could tell she was either distracted or wished to be elsewhere.

This distraction of hers made me irritable . . . and self-conscious . . . because it was one of the methods she employed to inspire a feeling of insignificance in her company. It was all part of her strategy, and the efficacy of her execution depended on me. To betray this irritation would be to admit to being under her spell, while to carry on as if nothing was wrong would be to abandon the prospect of gaining any headway.

I had to make headway.

And then, unable to contain myself anymore, unconcerned about the rules of her game, and longing to ingest the bitter medicine to our recovery, I pulled out the letter.

“This letter,” I said, shoving it in her field of vision. “I have to ask you, is this . . . really how you feel about me?”

“Yes,” she replies quietly after a pause, looking up at me for a split-second before lowering her eyes again.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!” she says emphatically. I like the way her eyes open slightly and assume a certain roundness when she becomes assertive.

I could detect that this admission was laced with a kind of resentment–there was something there– and for that reason I took my time and proceeded with caution.

So I gathered my words and said: “Karis, you know, the letter and everything you wrote and all . . . I just want to say is that I share your feelings, so indeed, God as my witness, I love you and I always have. I know I’ve written to you about my love, but I have never said so until now. All it took was for you to communicate your feeling to me in some way.”

She looks up at me, and I could see the impression of her tongue against her cheek. She’s scrutinizing me before she will answer.

“Then why?” she says softly, looking up at me for a second before lowering her gaze after a few lazy shakes.

“What?”

She stops fiddling with her hair and looks right at me.

Then she speaks in this real calm voice inflected with bitterness: “Then why did I come back to town to find out you’re trying to be a cad?”

I was stymied by this comment and could only return her gaze with silence. I was embarrassed, but curious that I had aroused her jealousy.

Her eyes narrow to slits, like a cat’s.

“Shannon, did you think this would hurt me?”

“Is this why it took you two weeks to call?” I replied, keeping my gaze on her expressive eyes.

“Perhaps. But answer me. Did you do this to hurt me? Is this how you demonstrate love, by escorting home the only woman besides me who’d give you the time of day?”

“You left me, remember?” I pointed out, baffled by her anger.

“You rejected me, you idiot. What was I supposed to do?”

“Well, you didn’t have to leave.”

Fire shone in her eyes: “Even so–despite your resistance– I always thought we had something and expected to come back and find that the person I left still had some decency.”

“So it was a test you put me through?” I asked.

“Good god, you’re such a baby!” she says all-of-the-sudden animated and frustrated. Regaining control, she sucks in her bottom lip. She would only do this when she was really upset.

“Well, was it?” I repeated.

“It wasn’t a test . . . but an expectation. I expected you to not only maintain your integrity, but to at least protest when you knew I was leaving for good. You failed even to do that.”

(Can you believe she said this? Had I even tried to stop her she would have accused me of being a selfish, controlling boyfriend. My best chance, I figured, was to let her follow her heart and discover my value in her life on her own. Let it be known, I played the supportive boyfriend to a “T”).

“I am the same person, only better,” I replied. “You don’t understand what I’ve been through in the past month, what I’ve learned, and now that I’ve matured some, how I arrived at the conviction that I do need you in my life to survive . . .”

I began to feel really sick with my head spinning and my palms becoming sweaty as I fought the symptoms of dread that arose in connection with the realization that there were certain obstacles to our union that I hadn’t considered before and had lessened the likelihood considerably.

Furthermore, I realized that what she expected from me was a convincing argument for our togetherness. She expected me to be the one to prove that we had “something” worth fighting for.

So my mind was going a million miles an hour–I had flurry thoughts to sort through at once–and she was expecting me to convince her that the love she indicated in the letter was still alive and fierce. I never should have admitted to her that I needed her in my life, for that was my wildcard and now I had surrendered any upper hand I may have possessed.

“I don’t believe you’re any better,” she says calmly. “You’re still the same selfish, temperamental little boy I left behind.”

This calmness infuriated me. She was in control. She was distancing herself from me. She was sitting there indifferent toward my agony.

“It’s your fault!” I practically shouted, maneuvering myself to look right in her eyes. “Everything I’ve done, all of my success, even that woman I was with, has been reactionary to you. Don’t you understand, I thought you truly cared about me.”

She doesn’t say anything, nor is she impressed by my melodrama, but just sits there complacently, very much in control and waiting for me to further my embarrassment, which I willing did.

I continued: “I thought that we would end up together no matter what, Karis. then with no explanation, you, the person I trusted more than anyone else in the world, abandons me to me at the slightest sign of discernment.

“Don’t you understand, to me, you were one of the daughters of men described in Genesis, and through you I became one of the sons of God, an heir to a future happiness. You were my like my Athena to Odysseus . . . always there to guide me, the one through whom I had a claim to the beauty of life.”

She laughs darkly. “A little overstated, wouldn’t you say?”

“I’m dead serious . . .”

“You’re dead serious? About what, about how you’ve destroyed me–and you have destroyed me, Shannon–over and over and over.”

“I haven’t,” I protested.

“What about little Infiny Schmidt? I couldn’t give a damn about your affairs, really, but what about that perverse little thing you have going on with her? Taking her clothes off for your so called art . . .”

I could hardly meet her gaze.

“Yeah, I thought so, Shannon.”

“She . . . she likes the way I depict her.”

“How about when you make a pass at her?”

I had no explanation.

“So, once again, I’m the pill for the sick little boy, the benefactress spreading candy-coating and colour-enhancing gloss for the boy who can’t get his shit together.”

“You don’t understand,” I said.

“Don’t I? Are you saying that I don’t understand the pressure you put me under when you expect me to come in and make everything alright again?”

“What pressure?”

“Forget it. Just forget it . . .”

“The clarity’s been too much for me . . .” I admitted, defeated. “I’ve been . . . so empty without you.”

Karis becomes quiet. It was hard to be sure whether I reached her or not.

I stretched, trying to keep her in a mood to talk: “And besides, even though you were the one who left me, you . . . you started writing to me and . . . What was I supposed to do? You made sure, at all times, to keep a certain proximity to me. It’s like you wanted to keep me around, you know, as an auxiliary male companion . . . or that’s at least how it felt.”

“I wanted to maintain our friendship, that’s all. Is that a crime?”

“No,” I said, ” . . . no it’s not. But what you wrote in the last letter is unforgivable if it was insincere. Besides, I’m curious about how you know so much about my personal affairs.”

“You’d be stupid to think I’d tell you,” she laughs.

“I didn’t think you would, but it’s a little disconcerting . . .”

“What, Shannon, that I have friends who actually care about me?”

“I know you have friends . . . it’s just that I never see them around.”

Karis doesn’t say anything.

“So, you really just came back to town and found out all this stuff about me?” I asked her.

“About how you exact your revenge on womankind for my misdeeds?”

“Karis . . . it’s not that clear cut.”

“I’ve known for a while how you go around rejecting and seeking rejection. And I knew you’d expect me to fix it.”

I was silenced.

“Then the letter . . .”

“What about it?” she asks, and the tone in her voice retains that infuriating calmness.

I could tell, though, that she’s agitated by my fixation on the letter, which, to her, is simply a piece of paper reflecting a moment of weakness.

“Then you can no longer mean what you wrote. You only wrote to me last month.”

She doesn’t respond, absorbed in the sea and sky, I suppose, or maybe she was just confused.

“Can I believe what you wrote in that letter: that you dream about me, that you still have these feelings about me?”

She looks so distant, remaining quiet.

“Then how do I take it, as a vicious joke, what?” I asked, trying to suppress this desire to shake it out of her. There are no visible indications she cares.

“Everything I wrote in that letter is true, Shannon.”

Hardly comforted by this admission, I wrapped my arms around her from behind, knowing it was imperative to test her sincerity.

As I held her, my chin resting on her flowery hair, she says, “It took me this long to come to grips with you, I hope you realize. And I’m not sure I want you to be close to me. But here I am. I just want you to know that I’m willing to settle because I need to be needed . . . I can’t help it.”

“Me, too,” I replied in jest, thinking this is how she meant her comment as well, but this isn’t how she took it. She pulls away from me, spitting angry.

“I’m not joking. For some reason beyond my better judgment, I am back in town to stake a claim in imperfection. You’re not exactly a great catch and you know it, mister stud wannabee. But here I am, ready and willing.”

Having said her piece, she starts walking along that spongy ground by the lake, looking beneath the water’s surface for shadows of life. I just sat there watching her, marveling at her beauty and its reflection in the quiet pool by the dying reeds.

“You, at least, have figured out why we really had to break up in the first place, haven’t you?” she asks, looking back at me from her now crouched position by the water. “Do you have any clue, or did you just not care enough to think about it?”

I shrugged, still intrigued by her natural beauty in contrast to her surroundings.

“Your ego, Shannon. Your ego has always been the obstacle to our relationship. It was your ego that kept you from attempting to prevent me from leaving, just like it was your ego that kept you from expressing your feelings for me for all those years. You’re not a god, you know.”

“It wasn’t about ego,” I protested.

“Like hell it wasn’t! Do you think you impressed me when you talked about all your crap, the women you dated and your poetic endeavors. I always felt that I was there to be impressed, that I was there to feed your ego and that when we went out you were showcasing me to your friends.

“So here I am now, ready to appease your ego and refusing to get up from the mire that you threw me in and with a facade of respect erected a fence around. So I don’t want to hear that you you need to be needed as well when you’re the one who needs to need!”

“I was only kidding when I said that,” I tried to assure her.

“I want a man, a human, Shannon, not a god who thinks it’s his duty to show me that he’s better . . .”

And then she starts crying a bit, so I went over and held her while she stands there motionless.

She keeps saying in muffled tones: “This isn’t going to work, this isn’t going to work . . .”

But I could suddenly feel her arms lock tightly around my waste, and I noticed that I had that bitter taste in my mouth that always seemed to develop in her company. I also realized that I was involved in a contractual dispute in the midst of settlement and still wasn’t sure if I wanted to put my signature to anything.

And on that warm autumn day I heard the soft droning of a winged insect awakened from its slumber by the October heat fly past me on our walk back home and was reminded of my conscience when I looked down to see her milky female hand locked in the awkward masculinity of mine.

When I dropped her off on her doorstep, we agreed to go to a movie that night after supper. The old Romeo and Juliet was showing at the theater. I didn’t try to kiss her.

* * * *

Karis could never be contained. She was quiet, no doubt, but if I ever found myself considering ideas asunder from the perspective of our relationship, like an ocean, she would collapse around me–liquid erasure– until all, at least seemingly, felt right. In many ways she was a generous girl, and more than once I felt that maybe I had taken advantage of her. I could never forget that she had given me everything of value in my life: an interest in philosophy and literature, sexual freedom within her margins, this ebbing reassurance of my own immortality and, of course, an association to the beauty of all things.

Naturally, when a person achieves this level of objectification, the situation can’t help but breed a certain resentment. And, after dropping her off, walking home, I found myself musing over this feeling of resentment I often seemed to develop in her company, that warm October day being no different, where I’d find myself wishing I was with my friends or in the solitude of my bedroom, basically anywhere where she’d be shut out. Paradoxically, when time would elapse away from her, I’d find myself growing emptier and emptier by her absence.

I think my psychology, by some witchcraft foreseeing my resentment, had implanted an excruciating attraction to this girl . . . one that I could not shake, even after a sober episode of self-annihilating infidelity.

Still, to ensure that I’d never get overly comfortable with her or complacent within our relationship, Karis had used our time to develop a ploy to keep me off guard. She used that beautiful face of hers–that inviting mouth, those flashing grey eyes–to inflict misery in my life, only so she could become my soothing agent, like a cool cloth capitulating with fever or an evening dip on a muggy summer night. Not only that, she had this uncanny ability to transform her disposition at the flip of a coin, able to morph from an affectionate, reserved little girl to a harpy from hell in seconds, or from objective scholar to emotional idiot at the slip of a comment.

It’s such cryptic misappropriation of her power over me that made me question the likelihood of our union being preordained and certainly aroused my resentment. By the time I returned to my studio, I fully resented her for the letter . . . for playing it so cool when she wrote with such passion and conviction about the love she possessed for me in the most polished prose I have ever placed eyes on. Her education had her leagues ahead of me, yet . . .

. . . Yet, she was able to make me feel that I was shooting for the heavens, irreconcilably over my head when it came to our togetherness. To be courting Karis was to be walking on paper-thin ice all the way up to the stars above, and each and every step required painstaking deliberation, effort and patience. No wonder I found her so attractive, she, the princess of the castle, allowed me to tread the icy incline to her heart, even though she cast me back to the earth upon each arrival at the threshold.

It’s funny that love has to be so damn intellectual.

That’s what I was considering when we were walking into the movie theater later that evening.

After I purchased our tickets, we were walking to our seats and she’s real close to me, of her own volition, and then, out of the blue, she says, “Shannon, you’re . . . too stuffy . . .”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I don’t know, you’re just too stuffy.”

The night of my conception fated me to one day contemplate stuffiness and now that I was I’d probably be doing so for many nights to come.

In choosing a seat, then, I had to consider stuffiness.

I decided upon a place by the wall, knowing we wouldn’t be totally engulfed by strangers. If I showed any type of hesitation in this decision, Karis would become embarrassed and therefore would assume a moodiness that would make me its object for the remainder of the evening.

I could tell she was pleased when I was quick to make our seating decision and didn’t require her opinion, yet was aware of a location in the theater which would prove agreeable to her.

As we’re watching the movie, I forget about her a bit and become enraptured by the old portrayal of Shakespeare’s supposedly worst play. I love who they chose for Mercutio, tall and gangly and a real eccentric, and I find myself mesmerized by him. And as I watch the movie, I start to become aware of myself beside Karis, watching the movie and full of resentment. I almost become pained when I feel her hand grip my thigh.

I’m not sure if she was aware of it or not, but I’m as far in my seat from her as possible a few seconds later, practically plastered against the wall in my attempt to distance myself from her. I almost wish I never met her. The resentment is almost unbearable as the movie plays itself out and Romeo and Juliet move through their courtship. When Mercutio gets killed, I feel my heart, like always, shatter and I look over at Karis, whose eyes are glazed over in boredom or contemplation, but certainly not with tears.

She, I don’t think, realizes the attack on her way of life this play has to offer, particularly the significance of Mercutio’s curse. Either that, or she simply doesn’t care. In the theater that night, I decided she didn’t care and I wished to be distanced from her all the more. I resented her for drawing me back under her power and returning to her old ways so quickly and of her intent to destroy me in the construction of a man suitable to her peculiar taste. Therefore, when the movie was over and we were out having coffee, I was pretty reserved and spiteful, while she talked on and on, the normally reserved girl now turned giddy and happy in my company.

“Come now, unhappy face, drink your coffee,” she says in a childish voice, imitating the frown I guess I had on my face. I didn’t respond much.

“You like the movie?” she asks.

I shrugged and she became quiet for a while.

“Hey, my dad said we can go up to the cottage this weekend, and we can go hiking and stuff.”

I didn’t care.

“And you know, you have to come over to my parents for Thanksgiving next week. My mom said that I had to drag you over, at all cost.

“That’s funny . . . that my mom likes you so much and all. I always said that I’d never be with a guy my parents like. But here you are, handsome.”

When she called me handsome, she was merely flattering me and I knew she was just trying to get me to loosen up.

When she realizes I’m “in a mood” as she describes it, she moves from her side of the booth to mine. She puts her arm around me and starts frizzing my hair.

“Hey, it’s all right,” she says. “I understand how you must have mixed emotions right now.”

“Karis, we . . .” I began, trying to gather my thoughts. By this time of the night, I was aware of what I had to do. “Karis, do you consider me religious?”

She laughs. “No.”

“Well, I realized something over the period of our separation: that I’ve always been interested in God, although, you know, I’ve never been interested in the lifestyle of the religious.”

“What’s your point?”

“At first, God was just intellectual, and then, well, God became a pressing need, you know what I mean?”

“No.”

Her arm’s no longer around me and she’s looking at me inquisitively.

“What I’m trying to say is that I’ve had an impression made in my life and I’ve realized something about me that makes . . . that makes, well, things between us, I suppose, an impossibility.”

Her eyes stare at me intensely and she starts shaking her head slowly, the imprint of her tongue against her cheek quite apparent. That playfulness she had assumed following the movie had disappeared and she’s back to the quiet girl I was in love with, the one I wanted to infinitely distance myself from and marry at the same time.

“Karis, I’m not the happiest guy, to say the least, and I take responsibility for that . . . I know I’m not going to change in the foreseeable future. If we’re to go out, we’re not doing so as some high schoolish little fling. This is serious, don’t you understand, like marriage serious.”

“That’s not so bad,” she admits.

“Well, it is, because I can’t in good conscience marry a girl in my misery, only to make her miserable as well. Don’t you see, this relationship can’t possibly work out.”

After pausing, I expected Karis to reply, but she remains reserved and she assumes this real sad look on her face. I almost felt bad and I struggled to show her that I was being magnanimous.

“Karis, I’m sure you’re aware of how much I care about you?”

She says nothing.

“All I do is think about you, like fourteen hours a day, and I think of how colourless the world is without you and how bland life is in your absence. I mean, for two years I’ve mourned your absence, poured myself into letters, yet I care about you enough to be willing to remove myself from you so that you don’t have to be oppressed by these neutral shades as well.”

“Like I’m any happier,” she replies, her eyes flashing from downcast and cloudy to a grey fury.

I didn’t know what to say under the glare of her angry eyes.

“Shannon, you know you’re no worse off than me. So what difference does it make?”

“This may sound weird, but I have this feeling that just doesn’t feel right and I know it’s of God. God’s, well . . .”

“Out with it, Shannon!”

“God’s asking me to choose an uncertain future over you. I just feel it.”

Then Karis starts laughing, a bitter, choking kind of laughter, and she moves across from me again in the booth.

“This is revenge, isn’t it? I’m surprised you didn’t try to get some action first.”

“Karis, I’m sorry, but I’m serious, I almost made the same mistake I’ve made my whole life–trying to gain a sense of security through the past . . . only I was unaware that you were the everydayness that made my life . . . bearable.”

Karis looks deep into my eyes, searching for the reality of the situation. Her eyes burned with anger, with spite.

“Rhetoric won’t excuse the truth. You just found out, didn’t you?”

Her eyes are slits again and her mouth is an upside down crescent, very kissable and sexy.

“Found out what?” I asked.

“Don’t be such a baby, Shannon, I knew you’d find out one day.”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

“You know, it can’t make things any worse by telling you.”

“What, Karis!” I shouted. Every person in the cafe, the waitresses included, were looking at us.”

“Bite me,” says Karis, shaking her head at my lack of control and I can see that she’s embarrassed.

So when I was ready to scream again, she says, “Shhh, shhh, I’ll tell you. Why do you always have to be such a maniac?”

“Just tell me.”

She pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one. She looks at me, real cool, and blows a cloud of smoke.

“You never smoke,” I said.

“I do when I’m nervous,” she admits, “and I’ve been a lot lately.”

Her frown turns upside down in a wicked smile as she words her admission, which appears in a visible vapor of smoke from the remnant still left in her lungs.

“Shannon . . . I sold the painting of me . . . to Charsmith . . .”

“You what?” I said in disbelief.

“It’s all right, Shannon, I was going to tell you on my own, but I thought you’d understand. I mean, Charsmith finds me–ordinary me–attractive.”

When I didn’t reply, she continues, merciless, “Not that anything would ever happen between us. So you honestly didn’t know he had feelings for me?”

I shook my head, now fighting for breath with disappointment. “But that painting was meant for you, nobody else.”

“Oh, grow up. It was mine to do with as I please and I found it disturbing. I hated what it represented. Charsmith, however, will cherish it. Besides, you had to know that Charsmith was interested in me. It was only your friendship that kept him making any advances.”

“It was the most meaningful of all my paintings,” I whispered. “I spent probably over a hundred hours on it. I figured, no matter what happened between us, you’d always have it.”

“Don’t be such a baby. It’s a piece of stale art that I came to resent. But know this. I didn’t sell it to try and hurt you.”

“Then why did you sell it to him?” I choked.

“He asked for it and I didn’t want it anymore,” she explains matter-of-factly. “It’s that simple.”

“Have you seen him since you came back to town?” I managed to ask through a constricted throat.

Her eyes fill with tears and she admits, “Yeah, on the night I returned to town. I’m sorry, I know it sounds bad that I reached out to him before you, but I wanted to get my mind right.”

She takes another sip of her cigarette, blows it downward and looks up to meet my curious inspection.

Her mouth moves soundlessly and she struggles for control. “Shannon, it’s you I care for, exactly everything I wrote in the letter. The whole time I’ve been catering to your needs, if you’d just take the time to see it.”

“You called him before me . . .”

“Yes I did. I kept thinking about your letters . . . how, when I’m in your life, I’m able to distract you from things: how thoughts of me distract you while you drive so you don’t lament every insect, bird and varmint you kill in your path . . . or how you can witness mass death on the other side of the world on CNN without collapsing. Just knowing I exist allows you to rationalize an ecosystem designed by God under the law of predation. The passion we’ve shared allows you to forget in the morning the torturous fever the night before of going to bed alone, every regrettable decision, every violation against you that lies beyond your control. And that includes what happened to your beloved dog when you were a boy. According to your writing, I’m the one who prostitutes herself to your conscience so that you can go about your affairs with a light heart when you should be sickened, saddened and striving to die.”

I could feel myself blushing as I remembered what I wrote to the only woman I ever cared about.

“So tell me, did you mean what you wrote in your letters?

I nodded and cleared my throat. “Yes, I meant every word. I’m . . . so happy when I’m with you that I hardly feel motivated to paint or write, unless it’s to create something for you.”

“You trusted me when you expressed yourself so beautifully on paper and I’m asking you to trust me when I say that I wasn’t trying to hurt you,” Karis says, pleading with me with her eyes to forgive her.

I take a sip of cold coffee now cold, trying to gather my thoughts.

Then I said, “Sometimes, when I would kiss you, you would assume this tenderness that I can’t get out of my mind, like you really cared.”

Her eyes meet my own as though fascinated.

I continued: “Just you caring was enough for me to go about my life and be able to function normally . . . not nearly so troubled.”

“I always thought I was helping you,” she replies.

“But if you got rid of that painting, it tells me that the affection we had between us wasn’t as special to you as me. Or is my logic flawed?”

She shook her head. “It’s wrong if it forms the wrong conclusions,” she whispers, but she fails to meet my eyes even though her gaze is aimed in the direction of mine. She’s playing with her hair again, twisting and untwisting.

“For me, affection was an expression of my feelings for you. But it was different for you, wasn’t it?”

She doesn’t reply.

“For me, it was about the foundation of an intimacy that would be cultivated for a lifetime. I assumed it was for a lifetime, and then you left me the moment I caught a glimpse past your illusion. So don’t tell me our relationship meant anything to you because intimacy’s valuable to you only as another experience in your life. As an expression, it means nothing to you, am I right?”

“You’re the artist,” she says.

“Well?”

“I’ve only had eyes for you, Shannon. You need me the way I need to be needed. I martyred myself from other men for you and there’s absolutely no gratitude. All you can do is fixate on the one mistake I made . . .”

“That’s the thing,” I replied. “Once a woman is martyred, she can never retain her former earthly role . . . It’s not that I’m ungrateful, quite the opposite, actually . . . I’m grateful that you have so selflessly made the choice between you and an uncertain future such an obvious one. You’re not sentimental when it comes to us, otherwise the only way you would have parted with that painting is if someone pried it from your cold, dead fingers.”

With nothing left to argue argue about, Karis continues to sit there occupying that quiet reflection that I loved, twisting and untwisting her hair. And while I was observing this ritual it dawned on me that I should have been hurt much more deeply by her betrayal, yet I was blessed with a strange calmness that allowed me to approach the flaws of our past with a rational mind free from temptation.

To be aware that the most meaningful gift you’ve ever given could be so heartlessly abandoned should inspire a bubbling outcry from the very soul. And, I admit, in many ways I was hurt and could have succumbed to a potentially mortal wound. But this hurt was superseded by a wave of relief that washed over me and left my spirit fresh and clean and in the mood to create.

What can I say, I felt the calm of relief the night that Karis and I said farewell to each other.

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