I had an email from my partner’s new lover. It was my fault, I wrote to her first. This exchange happened last Saturday night, about three or four hours after he first told me. I’m falling in love with another woman. I could do nothing but feel it, I braced myself and grieved. Threw him out of my house. Held myself and ached. There seemed nothing to discuss – if he’s in love, then it’s over. On Sunday a stream of forlorn calls came in. Four, five, six calls in a row, none of which I picked up. Emails, one after the other: Please no. Don’t just cut me out of your life like this. Is it really all worth so little to you?
That one, I answered. “Actually I think that’s my line.” I had found a resurrection in a certain short-term supply of wry dry humour, an emergency stash I’d kept under my seat but had never thought to have to use in this context. Fit your own mask first before assisting others. The fifth call I picked up because its disguised number seemed to me to herald a call back from my close friend in Denmark, who earlier that morning had been listening patiently. But instead it was… I don’t know what to call him. To say my partner seems now ridiculous and cruel. It was the guy I used to know. His voice sounded falling and small and very far away, as though he had tumbled down a well in some distant galaxy and didn’t have anybody to haul him out. “Hullo,” he said, two hollow syllables, like Eeyore. “Oh,” I said. “I don’t want to talk to you. Sorry.” I hung up.
Meanwhile I had worked out at last who this person was and I decided to write to her. It wasn’t because I needed to stir the hornets. It was for comfort, to make it real, for my bewilderment. I had this slippery tipping feeling like in the snow, when you’re climbing a hill. There’s the pain, and there are moments of a surf-like salty emphasis where you can’t be sure which way is up. My instinct is to open out the emotion, but lance the drama. I wrote to her as quietly as I could. “Hi, Name of Woman. I’m Cathoel, the guy I used to know’s partner.” I said, he’s just told me the two of you are in love and you want to be together. I am reeling. I’m struggling to understand, I can’t grasp it. It would be a great kindness if you would be willing to meet me, some day, maybe… just have a coffee, or something.
Within ten minutes she had written back. Yes, very gladly, she’d love to meet. There was so much to say, how about tomorrow night. Or the night after that.
A little, warning ping went off deep in my reptile brain but I stumbled on. “Ok, I think so, thanks. That’s kind of soon… do you mind if I let you know later, let the dust settle, see how I am feeling.” Her profile photo was glamorous but abstract and she wanted to meet at the park. Maybe we could both carry a red carnation, I said, so we can recognise each other. Because that, at least, would be amusing.
Next morning another email from Name of Woman. Long, impassioned, faintly accusing. She didn’t think she could now meet me, after all. She had seen the story I wrote about my experience, about his news, about how we were broken, about how I was hurt. Did I really feel entitled to violate his privacy? Sure, she could understand I felt terribly wounded and wanted to lash out in turn. But, Cathoel, she wrote: people get hurt.
All curiosity, all desire to meet her, dissolved. I could feel it fizzing out of me leaving the dry sand behind. As I started to type I was asking myself one of those good-instinct questions: why am I bothering to answer. Hi, Name of Woman. Fair enough, no problem. I can understand your feeling. I said I had written out of my own turmoil and shock and that writing helps me to try and understand the world. I felt I had done it respectfully, anonymously, and certainly hadn’t done it to wound or punish anyone, “because that would be mean.” And by mean, I mean: lame. Her answer told me everything you could ever need to know about Name of Woman. “But, Cathoel, you’re forgetting. There is somebody you are hurting by publishing this story. You hurt me.”
I could feel myself physically rear back from the screen like it had farted, my chin tipping to the left, my brow crunching. Out loud I said, “How self-absorbed are you?” This of course was a foolish question and illustrates how stupid a smart person can be. I could instead have recounted. Let’s see. What do we know about this person, so far? She is married and she’s a mum. She’s gone out of her way to fan a heavy flirtation with a man who is already spoken for. The rest of the story I should have been able to tell, myself.
“And what about the people who read your writing?” she went on, gently as though admonishing me. Pointing out to me a moral lack I’d not myself had the sensitivity to see. “They are hurt. Because it’s such a painful tale.” I was feeling the pain by now, alright, but possibly not in the way Name of Woman meant. This was first thing in the morning, my first day of singledom, I was sleepy as well as rather clouded by heartache and had turned to my emails while barely awake. Hoping for some sort of shaft of light, Hollywood, Biblical: it had all been a dream, it never happened at all, he’s made a horrible mistake, he’s not going to see her again, he loves me. They had only met twice, both times in public. They hadn’t even kissed. How can that be ‘in love’? Somehow aside from the agony this whole thing felt mortifyingly lurid, improbable, a shlock production.
And yet here I was clutching my pillow like it was a person, drowning in my own saliva, grappling to gasp. The absurdity as well as the viciousness of the breach cut through my body again and again. I had an ache in my throat that would be there for four days. This person lacked the humanity to understand the situation she had helped him to create. Let them love each other, they deserve each other, let her leave her marriage.
I didn’t answer the email, decided not to answer again. But she didn’t like that. Within ten minutes the first reminder showed up. “Where are you now?” Sure, I thought, unbelievingly: why don’t you come over? Maybe you can give me a smiley face and a hug. While I was making tea a third message arrived. “Where are you? Can I see you?”
You can’t see me after all, but you must see me: I was beginning to lose track. The sudden spate of demands, the multiple unrequited emails, the purple emotionality: it felt so false, a mimicry of how you might speak to a hard-hearted lover who says abruptly, It’s over, and will not meet to discuss it. Recanting the whole story into my friend’s ear over Skype that evening I said, “If I said to you, ‘Where are you? Can I see you?’ – wouldn’t that come off as kind of… flaky? Desperate?” From Brisbane she said, “I am shivering. What on earth has he done, getting himself entangled with this person?”
Half an hour later I got an email from the guy I used to know. She had recruited him. “Name of Woman thinks the three of us should meet. What do you say? She is worried about you.” In German this phrase is, “she is making herself sorrows about you.” Easy solution, I thought, my lip curling. If you’re concerned about me, how about don’t mess with my boyfriend behind my back? I closed the computer and walked away. The urgency, the manipulative pressure, the attempts to control other people’s behaviour – the unctuous false sympathy. It was boring as well as outrageous. If you’ve read this far, though, I have to warn you: if all of this seems unbelievable now, it soon got far worse.
As a child I spent hours alone with a great joy, rummaging in the world, musing, dreaming, lighting on strong understandings that then lit me like honey. At ten I found the dusty old books up the back of the library and learned about witchcraft, my best friend and I practiced spells by tying knots in ropes and brewing up fearsome potions from the garden, at eleven I invented a religion one weekend at the beach and converted all our friends. All my life I’ve been translating for myself joyously, soberly, freely the musings that I hear in the trees, in running water, and with my face close to the ground. Petals at the gatepost, curtains at the doorway, the sober whispers of ceremony: as a teenager I felt that god must be like being in water, I would sink into the pool in our backyard and think about that, underwater, rain coppering the green water-surface sky. This day was a Sunday and Solstice, turn of the year. I am in Europe, the thieving place, that other dark continent. I search for the sense of a continuous culture, a blood known by me, in my bones, in my waters, the elusive thin feeling of a processional ancestry, going back generations, faint but audible, disappearing into the hills of the thunderous and fire-lit past.
I couldn’t bear to stay home by myself in the wreckage and just feel the loss of all that was now gone. During the day as the lost, lovelorn emails arrived from my – from the guy I used to know, don’t cut me out, I don’t want to lose you, was that all it was worth, a sense of self revived in me, probably through rage, and at seven I crept under the shower at last and tied up my hair in a spike and got dressed. It was still light outside as I left the house: the longest day of the year. My girlfriend and I had a huge German beer in the bold blue daylight of 8pm. The film her musician mate had crowdfunded was debuting for the second time in a narrow Kino at the back of the bar, all red velvet curtains and comfy 50s cinema seating, like a womb. A New Zealand woman sang plangent old songs, in Eastern European languages and tone, of unbearable, heartbreaking beauty and transliterated for us the lyrics: Now we go down into the dark.
We are happy, because we have light and the warmth.
But also we are sad: because we know the long darkness is coming, the days are growing shorter, we are going to have to work hard to harvest enough to get us through the miserable winter. She toasted the shy film maker, gloriously. In the audience we sang out and stamped our feet. The film was complex and evocative and followed a journey, into the kitchens and courtyards of some of eastern Europe’s female elders and their healing gifts, their frayed folk magic. Music, it was music all around. The crone in her stony kitchen in Greece stroked the head of the sweet film maker and crooned, What a good boy he is, he is a good boy. Afterwards she danced in her kitchen, threading an offering of some sacred substance she’d unwrapped from brown paper, singing roguishly, for him, forty years younger: My love loves another, o, my love does not love me.
Watching, I felt revive in me certain dark and numinous elements of my own self and our place in this webbed world. I got on the train home lit with my own love of the place, the dark, the swollen great everything. Then Monday morning, an email from the guy I used to know. “The only woman I want to talk with every day,” he wrote, “is you.” He reiterated that he didn’t want to be with her, he didn’t love her. Can we meet? I felt hesitant. I was angry. I felt mistrustful.
In Germany, official procedure is torturous. On a forest walk you will pass signs which in English would say, perhaps, Keep Off the Grass. In German they are like long, open letters which begin, “Dear Forest Wanderers and Forest Wanderesses. Please be advised…” When he and I were still us we had made a clotted string of appointments to do with my visa application, which entailed filling a three and a half page list of requirements, reports, business plans, health insurance, pension insurance for old age, income projections. I was to register my address, now I finally had my own place, with the Citizensresidentialaddressdetailsregisteroffice.
So on the Tuesday I said, why don’t you come out and have a coffee with me before my appointment. You can help me read the forms. He said, “Let’s melt this block of ice.” We spoke, by email, for the first time about his sense of frustration and how he always felt it wasn’t ok to talk with me about it, somehow. And he shared with me the screenshots of their two-week chain of emails. I thought, maybe we need to sit down and I will just really listen. I skimmed the emails and felt wryly disappointed, or do I mean relieved, at her badgering pace, cheesy emoticons, unrequited hugs, carefully littered suggestions. The next day I read them again, properly. She suggested they meet up and he was very keen. Clearly they had made a strong impression on each other. She wrote again, to pin him down to a time. He and I were still a couple then, and I knew nothing of this. Five times she said in her subsequent messages, we can just let it be spontaneous, I’m so spontaneous. I read this as a flag intended to advertise her sense of herself as sexually available and adventurous, like certain kinds of tattoo you see now on very young insecure women.
In between the proclamations of spontaneity were repeated attempts to lock him down to a solid plan: how about we walk our dogs one day? How about tomorrow at one? How about a bike ride? Or how about we meet down by the river and talk?
When I got to the cafe, locking my bike to his – actually, they’re both his bikes – he was inside, long-faced and remorseful. I thought, I have so loved you. Now I’ll never trust you again. I was sad at the ruin of something so fine and fruitful. In the early days we had fiery arguments as we began to shake down, to build a life we could share. We’d get furious, shout at each other, and then meet the next day, in a park, under trees, “come for a walk” he usually said, and the moment I spotted him in whatever crowded public place I always felt the smile breaking over my face however unwillingly, however angry I might have been, however angry I still was. Seeing him walking towards me with his hysterical dog (“he’s been sitting by the door all day”) I would see that same smile on him, spreading his cheeks back, an involuntary smile, a smile we shared. Goddamnit. Such a waste. But, maybe –
We ordered tea and he said, You can ask me anything you want, and I will answer. I said, almost at random, Are you still seeing her? He said, I have seen her one more time. I said, How was that. And he said: “Intimate.”
Forgive me. These words seem to me today almost sensual. I didn’t hear them, they’d have done no good, I long for someone – some guy – some man – to sidle up from somewhere and whisper them into my ear, those hot words: I want you, I miss you, I love you. And if this guy ever did it I would have to turn my head. They met on the Saturday night. That is, the moment he had freed himself and got shot of our sense of commitment. He was angry about the story. He was sad. But she wanted to go dancing. He “got dragged out into the night.” They fucked. But afterward he felt sad. “I was lying there wishing it was you beside me.” I turned away my head, burning with nausea. “I got asked what I was thinking and I had to lie,” he said, sadly, almost wistfully. Oh, the vile.
When liars lie, they always say the same thing about it. “I didn’t want to hurt you.” What this means, of course, is, “I didn’t want to hurt myself.” I started choking. Trying to speak. Asplutter. I couldn’t look at him, I couldn’t look away. “So – then… so, but why did you spend all of Sunday calling me? You called, like, eight times! Again and again! Sounding so sorry for yourself! Saying you – ” I sat up, staring. “And when she was claiming, so patronisingly, so falsely, to be worried about me – you mean she still had your juices inside her? What kind of people are you, anyway? It’s so fucking disgusting!” The fear and the rage made me savage. I was savage in an undertone because, hipsters, cafe. Like children who think they deserve abuse because it’s less destroying than seeing that mummy and daddy are cruel, I could feel myself slipping into the cardinal error women make in these cases: we blame the woman, to avoid the pain of blaming the beloved.
He tried to tell me it was I who broke it, or who made it all irreparable – because I wrote about it. He said he wanted to block her but was afraid of hurting her “more than she’s been hurt already.” He began to cry. Told me this hideous story of abuse, a sour history, from before her birth. I put up my hand to say No more. I got up and we both left the cafe. Outside in silence we unlocked our bikes. Unable to take it in, grasping for solids, I said, “What does your other friend Designer Guy say about all this?” The guy I used to know bowed his head. “He says I should be honest with everybody involved.” “What do you mean, honest with whom, what, you mean honest with me? Or – you mean… do you mean, be honest with her?” He said: also, her ex-lover. Her ex-lover? You mean apart from her husband? Yes, he said. Mutual Friend. Mutual Friend who introduced us had an affair with her a year ago.
We were cycling away from the cafe when I learned this, on a shuddering, cobblestoned street. The whole moral bankruptcy of the situation made me begin to howl out loud. I felt my gorge rising and had to howl and howl. “Ahhhh!” I said, “Ahhhh! I’m going to vomit! I feel sick!” The violent nausea so painful, unexpected. It felt like the sounds would maybe purge me, save me. “So – what, he just… handed her on to you, like she was a bowl of fruit? What the literal, actual, living fuck?” The stormy conversations we had had all day Monday by email seemed nostalgically innocent by contrast, silent movies instead of porn, almost sepia. He’d said what can I do to show you I was wrong. I’d said if he was serious, he could send me their emails. I wanted him to show himself which privacy he was loyal to. He had discussed with this woman, this stranger, our relationship. Now he said that in order to betray their conversations to a third person – me – he would have to abandon one of his chief principles: Privacy. He said he needs his freedom. Isn’t it interesting, I wrote back, how the principles that mean most to you are the most self-serving kind: your freedom, your privacy. Isn’t it telling, I told him, how the principles you’ve been willing to abandon so easily are the socialised ones: loyalty, trust and honour. Our privacy, our love, and the agreement we made in our sweet hearts when we decided to be monogamous, to become a couple, to be close in the night and to whisper to each other all the things that are so hard to say to strangers in the bewilderness of estrangement that is sometimes the world.