„I never lied to you.“
Sitting opposite me in a smoky room, Jim’s body language doesn’t match his words. Perhaps he thought I would be too scared to mention it, or that I wouldn’t mind the little pricks in my knowledge of him that turned into black holes once I knew what they contained. Lastly, I also have to entertain the idea that he simply didn’t care enough to think at all. That’s not what the sagging shoulders and downcast eyes are telling me, though.
„Silence is a lie.“
I don’t add that it can sometimes be the only truth there is. I don’t give him an out, because I don’t want to.
I want him to remain slouched and uncomfortable, I want the silence that I’d interpreted to be a kind of happiness, when it was actually omission, to weigh on him and push him down ten times stronger than gravity, to bury him knee-deep into the ground beneath and make him feel the same powerlessness he’d imposed upon me.
„We never promised anything.“
This is the only truth he has left to say. Then,
„You never said. I never knew.“
I want to reach across the table and clock him in the jaw. I want to physically hurt him. I am not an aggressive person, but reaching Jim – the innermost part of him – is, I realize, still beyond me. So my instincts transfer into the closest area they can, and I really wish I were brave enough to make this fantasy come alive. But I don’t. Not because I think he would retaliate, but because – more than anything, this, too, would signal at how utterly helpless I feel at this moment.
I was dishonest, but I never lied. Is there a difference? I replay all of his „never“ statements. They’re half-truths. It was always like this between us. Always tentative, slow, strained. But – and here is my never statement, which might be a half-lie – I never thought Jim would intentionally hurt me. Until he did.
The night when he called me up and said we needed to talk, I sat up in my bed and listened to the waterfall of admissions about all the omissions. Then I left my apartment, found a park bench in the nearby children’s playground and wept as I pressed the end-call button time and time again with each of his attempts to talk.
My silence had been benevolent, it was a time-vault for the things I thought would be too much for him to hear, which I nevertheless planned to reveal someday. His was a bottomless pit where he casually discarded the knives and arrows that had the power to kill. When I asked, even Jim wasn’t sure how many he’d collected. Then, in an attempt to absolve himself, he started pulling them out of the dark one by one.
Sitting opposite him as he shoots one truth after another, I recall a painting I’ve seen of St. Sebastian – a virile, androgynous youth with arrows pointing in all directions from his slender body. His face was baroque-pathetic, but it was also serene. I try to rearrange my features into a similar expression. This is no time for half-truths, he needs to know how weak I am, but also – how adamant.
„Is that all?“
„As far as I can recall.“
He falters for an instant and his hand shoots out across the table to reach mine. I flinch and pull my hand into my lap. It’s strange to see his long fingers stretched toward me, menacing, when they used to be so inviting. I used to kiss those fingers one by one, now the only urge I recognize within myself is to bite, or cut, them off. A finger for a lie, a finger for a pang, an arrow in my chest. Will my skin ever be smooth again? How do you heal, wrench the betrayal out of your body so it is no longer a part of you?
You don’t. You let the body mend with the arrows inside, and then you live like this for the rest of your life. You exist, walking around the world with arrows and knives protruding awkwardly from your chest and arms and legs, so people can never come as close to you as they once could.
„I was trying not to hurt you, Em. That’s why,“ Jim says after a long pause. I look him in the eyes and even though there’s a shade of modesty there, it isn’t nearly enough to quench my thirst for blood.
„No. You were trying to cover your ass. There’s nothing you could’ve told me, that would’ve hurt more than this. That you couldn’t be yourself with me.“
„Why couldn’t you have been less?“ The desperation in his voice is tangible. „I could’ve really loved you, if you had been less.“
A poison-tipped arrow enters my body somewhere on the left side of my chest and exits half way down my back. It is a mortal wound, the realization that half of what is killing me at this moment is my own fault. Not because I should’ve been less, but because I didn’t allow him to see that I wasn’t that much more.
I look at Jim carefully. This is going to be the last time in years I’ll truly try to see him. Later, the pain will settle in, the arrows and knives will always keep him at the length that he himself has chosen. As for now, the wounds are still fresh enough that I don’t mind pulling a little closer, pushing them in a little more. What’s the difference anyway?
Adrenaline, or the human tendency to grow accustomed to anything that’s thrown at us, do their part. I can’t tell which one it is, but I still welcome a reprieve from the piercing pain. Think fast while you’re still able to, I quietly tell myself. Think fast about what you want to say and spit it out. Later, when you’re on your own, the bitter taste will resurface and you won’t be able to think this clearly for days, or who knows, even months. Maybe years. So think carefully and speak.
Jim’s hand is still on the table. It seems like the hand of a corpse, inanimate, lonely. Before realizing what I am about to do, I disentangle my fingers and squeeze it between my own two sweaty palms. He peers at me, tentative, cocking his head questioningly. I wave him away. I can’t forgive him yet, and I probably never will. I am not that big of a person, I am not the more he thought I was. But amidst the silence that was all my own is a lie I’ve never told him, and it is the only thing that now glues our hands together. A lie.
„You would’ve been enough,“ I tell Jim. „Just so you know, for next time. You would’ve been enough.“
The way his hand twitches wakes me to the fact that this was probably the worst thing I could’ve said, crueler even than saying I hated him. In a way, I am sorry, but in another, I feel stronger than ever. Because I’ve admitted to the only little lie I’ve ever kept from Jim, and even though it wasn’t as bad as everything he’s done, it was enough to hurt.
My fists relax. I didn’t even know they were knotted. Perhaps I really meant to punch him. Jim’s finger traces a path from inside my palm and across my knuckles.
„I lied to you just then, when I said…“
Knowing what he’s referring to, I cut him off. There’s no need to hurt each other as much anymore. I let go of his hand and lift mine in an attempt to form a shield that would protect me from his honesty. The lies were painful enough.
„Don’t. It won’t do any good now.“
As I let the reality of my statement sink in, my hands fumble through my bag to find the wallet inside. Putting a few notes on the table that cover both our drinks, I stand up to leave. Despite the awkward tug of muscles around the newly acquired wounds and the fact that there is nothing left to say, I find walking away from Jim the hardest thing about the whole charade.
On my way home, I wonder whether any of us, liars, will ever find absolution, or peace. I know what my transgression was, and if I had been able to be the person Jim imagined me to be, all of this could’ve ended differently. I accept my part of the blame and it stings the raw and bleeding flesh. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the pain disappears. We never loved each other. The silence was nothing more and nothing less than our unconscious realization that the person opposite us was not really a person, but a projection of what we thought we needed.
I don’t know Jim anymore than I know myself, and Jim doesn’t know me. Neither of us was prepared for what was going to happen. It is in this moment I realize that we weren’t cruel to each other. We were only stupid. There’s a strange comfort in this. Although it’s a small hope, at least it leaves room for improvement.