The following is a short story written in an hour or two for a Saskatoon Writers’ Group challenge. The challenge is “two people have a conversation on a bench, one of them does not want to be there”. Please read and comment, constructive criticism and feedback are always welcome. I could really use some ideas for a title.

He found her about an hour after she left, time enough for both of them to maybe calm down a bit. He’d known where she’d be anyway and also knew he’d go after her probably before she walked out. His hour was a long one, pacing the living room and going over the fight and the things she said. He didn’t get to say everything he wanted to then, so his mental energies were now directed at finding just the right mix of rationality and punch to win her over while making his point.

Interspersed in his strategizing were shards of bright panic, where he was close to bursting into frustrated tears. What if she wasn’t there? What if she was and walked away when he approached her? What if she was gone for good this time?  Somewhere deep down he asked himself hard questions. Questions about fault and guilt that he rarely faced up to and was too afraid to now. Going after her probably meant dealing with his shit, because she had a way of making him do that. How much of the panic was really about losing her and how much just mundane fear about admitting he could be wrong? He had no idea and didn’t want to deal with those questions anyway, much less go sit with her and invite them in.

More than once in the hour, he had considered just letting it go for now. Teach her a lesson. He half believed she’d expected him to follow her and had just led him on a chase for the satisfaction of making him chase her. Everytime he pictured her sitting in the park, he’d felt the panic stabbing
at all his tender sensitivity without mercy.

He was trying to keep the panic at bay now, sitting beside her on the cold bench with his body half-turned and into her. She sat facing straight ahead, not looking at him. He could feel a lump in his throat and all his careful planning for how his words should come out threatened to tear itself apart
and get lost in all the sharpness of his fright. She lit a cigarette and sort of looked his way, but not quite. Her disdain started a different sort of emotional alchemy, and his fear started to twist into anger.

“You have until I finish this.” is what she said and he thought oh, it’s back to smoking now is it?

“Look, I just want you to be clear about what I’m saying here.” he said.

“You don’t think you made yourself clear.”

“No, not exactly,” it took a second for him to realize she wasn’t asking a question. “Why, did you?”

“Maybe not in the way you mean.” she grinned and smoked.

He didn’t want to take the bait. So he gave himself a moment, swallowed back the anger and spite as best he could, and tried again.    “I want to be clear about what I thought we were doing with all of this, moving in together and—”

“You clearly don’t want to live with me, Ethan.”

“Jesus, that isn’t it at all! Is that really what you think?”

“Well what else can I think? You keep going on about how cool it was when you were on your own, you make these faces when you think I can’t see you. I feel oppressed, for fuck’s sake.” she looked at him now, cigarette still dangling from her fingers. Her anger lit up her eyes, veiled slightly by her stressed hair.

“Oppressed, really?” he chuckled a bit to show her she was being ridiculous.

“What else do you call it?”

“I’m just trying to get used to living with you. We’re different, Jan. That’s all.”

“You don’t have to be such an asshole about it. All we do is fucking fight and I’m really, really tired of it.”

“Maybe that’s just what happens with some couples. Growing pains or something.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to fight this much. How are we supposed to live together?”

“I don’t know. I just know I don’t want you to leave or walk out into 30 below just to prove a point.”

“To prove a point? Can’t you see I walked out just to get away from you!?”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have come after you then!”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have.”

“Look, we’re getting way off the rails here.” he said. “All I want is for you to understand that even if I complain, this isn’t about you it’s about me.”

“Oldest story in the book, huh.” she said.

“Maybe but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

“You know what your real problem is? It’s that you’re not sure what you want and you’re afraid of what you get because you don’t know if it’s enough and there’s no one to tell you.”

“Whoa, whoa… where’s all that coming from?”

“It’s true. This doesn’t have anything to do with my laundry habits or what a clean freak I am compared to you. This is about being stuck.”

“Oh spare me the psychoanalysis, ok Jan?”

“Weren’t you the one who was about to launch into the same old explanation about projecting your insecurities onto me as hostility, as if that somehow excuses how you make me feel?”

“Well, shouldn’t I be allowed to have insecurities?”

“Yes, but it’s not having them or not having them that matters. It’s what you do about it, and what you do about it is hurt me and then expect to be forgiven because you’re “fragile”.” she made scare quotes with her smoking hand, but he didn’t notice anymore.

“That’s not–”

“It’s bullshit.”

“Jan, come on.”

“Bullshit, Ethan. When are you going to realize that this isn’t something you win.”

“What isn’t? This argument?”

“No, I mean relationships and… and life. Fuck!”

“I’m not trying to win anything, I think what I’m trying to do is apologize and smooth things over.”

“Oh please, this is an apology?” she was truly amused now, and he knew her tone as the same one she’d use if she was relating something funny she’d seen or heard. “Tell me something, ok? And be honest.”

“Okay.” he said, hoping that humoring her would earn him some brownie points he could spend on a better foothold because he felt his grip on the moment slipping fast.

“You probably came over here thinking about how wronged you are that I got mad at you for what you said.”

“Well yeah, I don’t think it’s fair.”

“Let me finish. You probably didn’t stop and think about why I’d be upset, to you all that matter is that my reaction isn’t warranted or something.”

“Okay, that’s true.”

“I know you, Ethan.” her voice softened, “and I really do love you but you missed something crucial, the same thing you almost always miss.”

“What? What do I keep missing?”

“Everything…” and she took a deep breath “You map this out like someone’s wrong but I’m not wrong to feel how I feel, even if my interpretation or whatever doesn’t mesh with yours. You want to smooth things over, sure, but you also want to show me I’m wrong for what I think about your motives.”

“Right, but you are wrong. Shouldn’t that change how you feel?”

“No, because it’s too late. I’m already upset and all you can think about is being right.”

“So now I ignore your feelings? That just isn’t true.”

“Not all of the time, but definitely when we butt heads.”

“Well what do you expect me to do, should I just feel bad for making you upset even if I think you’re being ridiculous?”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Well then how am I supposed to?” her cigarette was almost gone and he felt sick to his stomach, now completely without control over the direction of this conversation and unable to regain it.

“All I know is that it isn’t always about right or wrong or who has the strongest point, sometimes you don’t know how you’re coming across and someone getting upset is usually  sign you need to be more clear.”

“I don’t know how I can be any more clear that this thing with living together is about my own hang-ups and I will get over them.”

“When, Ethan? And should you even have to? Maybe we’re just not meant to live together.”

“Fatalism, really? Come on, Jan. Chafing at sharing space with you and everything that goes with that is dumb, it’s just me trying to assert myself.”

“You know what I mean when I say “meant to”, I hate the idea that we’re forcing it.”

“So do I.”

“Well do you think that’s what we’ve been doing?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Then I should move out.” she said, somewhat angrily as if finally the truth was coming out! He ignored it, hoping she’d realize how she sounded.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then what is it?” she said, and there was still edge. He couldn’t answer her, so she looked at him and the anger in her eyes faded.

He thought for a long time. He stared at his shoes and didn’t react when she stubbed out her cigarette. He barely noticed this, but after a while he remembered what she’d said about that and appreciated that she’d let it go. And so easily, too. He knew, and thought about, how he’d have made some remark about it only to try and pass it off as a harmless joke when it was so clearly not. He wanted to be able to feel and say however he wanted, to whatever extent he could justify it. He expected other people to put up with it, and knew that, but had always thought of himself as putting up with them to. But if Jan was right, he did anything but. Through his jokes and his comments and his arguments, no matter how well justified, all he did was show how much he wouldn’t put up with.

Finally, Jan got up to leave and didn’t say anything else and it was this on top of letting the smoke time limit thing go that cemented it for him. This was what it was to really put up with someone’s shit and make them feel accepted. He wondered if she rationalized this the way he did, if she thought of
herself as flawed and aware of it and beneficent in her earnest acknowledgement of her issues. He imagined himself facing this situation as her and thought, yes I have a tendency to read too much into what my boyfriend says but it’s an issue I’m working on. He realized how hollow this sounded as reasoning and applied it to his own behavior.

He imagined himself looking at her scattered dirty clothes, the one thing she let herself slip with, and doing nothing. Not a word, not an exasperated face, not even a shrug of forgiveness or half-smile of wry amusement, oh you and and your laundry! Just nothing. Accepting it like you would accept that
water is wet. The way she’d forgotten her cigarette, left him alone with his thoughts.

She must have realized how unusual it was for him to think before speaking. He realized this and loved her for her silent acceptance, the way she’d gotten up and gone off in the direction of home. After a while he followed, and slipped into bed beside her. He knew it woke her up but she didn’t complain that his body was cold and this time, he noticed.

When they woke up, he told her he loved her and she would never again have to feel like he didn’t want her living with him. He explained what he thought were major realizations he’d made, some of which were still half formed and she listened without comment but with what he understood to be genuine
interest. There had been a time when they were happy here, when it was all exciting and too new to waste time or energy or attention on the ways in which their lives rubbed up against each other wrong when shared so closely. So they passed the morning with conversation of this kind.

And after that, things seemed the same.