11. 24. 2009. 10:52

Belong to each other (short story)

János Háy

If there were a God, and if he had time to cast a glance into the married lives of couples in Budapest, his cheeks would flush red with shame, assuming he had cheeks, assuming he were not merely a waft of air like most spirits. Course he’d immediately deny all responsibility, since marriage was not part of his original design. Man had invented it, cause man had thought it would be a good idea. 

If it needs to be fixed, man should fix it. Where had it gone wrong? How should he know. There is only one God, what could he possibly know about married life? And anyway from the remoteness of the heavens things don’t look good or bad, they just look like what they are; in this case marriage. But man sees marriage from close up, he is in it all day, day in day out, he couldn’t see it from a distance if he wanted to. He lifts fate to his face and scrutinizes it up close, like a short-sighted man reading a footnote.
 
Love, that had been good, so there would be children, and they both had wanted to tie the knot, they had wanted everyone to see that they belonged to each other. Years weighed down on years, and like everyone else they hadn’t realized when the evening came, stealing in unnoticed, like a sly fox. The evening when it would have been worthwhile to step out, maybe not to the heavens, but at least to the neighbor’s place, and listen in on what had been going on at home. Why are you leaving, why is there no dinner, why do you drink so much, why do I have to do the dishes, why didn’t you buy a dishwasher, why don’t you ever rinse out the bathtub, why don’t we have any money, why don’t you earn more. Old man next door turns up the TV, he’s a retiree, went through it once himself, doesn’t want to be reminded now. The kids just sat, scared, the youngest snuggled up to the oldest, and they stared at mom and dad, the fight in which everyone comes out a loser, but the children lose the most.
 
There’s no point in continuing like this, the man said once in an unusually calm voice, as if he had premeditated it. How long has he been waiting to say that, the woman thought, though actually he hadn’t. I’m alone, he said. It’s not easy for me either, said the woman, but the man wouldn’t let her tell him what was hard. You don’t pay attention of me. As much as I can, when I have to take care of the kids too. And at night. How many times did you say no. Cause it’s not good for me if we do it that much, she said. In the end I didn’t want it that much either and that was still too much. Then I’m sure it was because one of the kids was sick. You always bring up the kids. You don’t love me, the man said, and you never loved me, I just happened to be there at the right time. I do love you, she said, you just don’t see it. How could I see it when you don’t show it? Then the woman burst into tears, afraid that her children would grow up without a father, crying, she had been such a fool, hadn’t shown her love, she had thought it was obvious, you don’t have to say it over and over again, and lawfully wedded once – even wedded in the eyes of God, they had been married by the Church – was wedded forever, marriage, she hadn’t thought she would have to deal with that again.
 
They tried. Years passed before they actually separated. Trips to revive their marriage, enrich their lives together with new experiences, other relationships, secret rendezvous to make up for what they were missing at home. Time was running out, they were slowly filling out, rounding out. Age was a liability first and foremost for the woman, she went to ruin first, or is it just a social convention, but a man is still a man at an age when a woman, they say, used to be a woman, cause her biological clock has stopped ticking. The man felt he was in his prime, while the woman had to grapple with her fate. The children barely noticed, they lived their own lives, and it’s normal if, when the parents offer to help, they say, we’ll let you know, but then they never do. It was all so clear – she said once to one of her girlfriends, who of course was struggling with the same problem – when the children were there… A mother. Everyone knew who I was and what I was supposed to do. Her girlfriend was ahead of her a bit on the question of solutions, chorus, aerobics, an occasional presentation on lifestyle and habits with corrective tips gleaned from Eastern philosophy. She had just attended one. She tried to pass on the knowledge she had just acquired. Immerse ourselves in ourselves, find the inner core, etc., but the woman didn’t respond. She went home. Waited for the man to come home. He came home and she saw what a man this man had become. She watched him, and she instinctively sunk her teeth into this self-assured being from whom she too drew sustenance, and who made her fate seem even frailer. She felt like she was serving justice by tearing at his self-consciousness. Love handles, she said, when he had just taken off his nightshirt (it was morning). Some women like it, he had said. At your age you should shower more often, she said, they were sitting in the kitchen, it was hot, the sun had been burning through the kitchen window all day. I don’t stink, he said. You can’t erase the past, she said. I don’t want to, he replied. Of course there are young women, she said, who grew up in one-parent families, and their father-complex drives them to share a bed with an old man like you. I’m not interested in young women. What’s going to become of us ten years from now, she continued. I don’t know, he replied. Anyway they only want your money, she said, if you don’t have any they don’t give a shit about you, they wouldn’t stand by you through it all like I did. I’m sure they wouldn’t, said the man, but he still couldn’t bring himself to stay at her side. Her jibes wore on him more and more, and he started attributing too much significance even to her insignificant remarks. I’ve had about enough of your insults, he said once, and left. But it was something else. The younger woman (there was one) had threatened to break up with him, cause she was tired of all the secrets, of the fact that he wouldn’t admit they were lovers, and if they broke up he would never see the child she had been carrying now for some two months just a few inches from her beating heart. The woman’s prophecy came true. Another bond, children, chores, which the man couldn’t quite handle as well as he once had.
 
Boredom, he thought once, he was walking in the street, a familiar place, his new family was at Lake Balaton. Life is too long, and you can’t bear the fact that it’s always the same. He sought out the woman. He was tired. She asked him to help her with something, the faucet wouldn’t stop dripping. They were still there for each other, to some extent. The woman hadn’t liked the men who had come and gone since the divorce. The man had grown bored in his new relationship, which officially was now his marriage. On paper they had not belonged to each other for years, but somehow they still did. The important years, the ones that had made him who he was – suitable for a new relationship, for example, they had lived through together.
 
Translated by Thomas Cooper

Tags: János Háy