The apology had been the most charged and contested gesture between us, the common element in arguments whose subjects ranged from the trivial (courtesies, chores, choice of entertainment) to the significant (knowledge, character, politics, futures), though, as in any relationship, over time these categories of trivial and significant had become impossible to distinguish from one another, so that as a consequence we lived in a double state of nearly unbearable meaningfulness and meaninglessness – or, rather, forever suspended on the precipice of either: pre-meaningful or pre-meaningless. What was unbearable, of course, was the extremity of each condition, but also the not-knowing in advance which condition would be applied (by us, naturally, but as if by some ‘outside agent’) to any given situation. At times, it proved difficult to disentangle the act of, say, washing a plate to a lower-than-expected standard from the vast network of feeling and history in which all prior actions were somehow implicated. On other occasions, feelings or memories which we had previously considered our ‘deepest’ or most important became somehow neutralised, or evacuated of significance, a phenomenon which we (or at least I) experienced with a weird elation I barely understood: sometimes, in the middle of what seemed to be a critical or even terminal conflict, a sudden tear or opening would materialise in the argument and through it would flood an understanding of its total inconsequence; thus we could find ourselves laughing, sometimes to the point of near-hysteria, at my total resistance to the idea of having children, or her ongoing trauma resulting from a sexual assault during adolescence, or any of the dozen or so other enduring obstacles to our happiness we thought of as ‘major issues’. Regardless of the ‘condition’ we found ourselves in, however, the apology was always a dangerous and unstable element to introduce. In the former condition (of excessive meaning), its basic insufficiency or unreliability as a speech act guaranteed the irresolution, and often the escalation, of most conflicts. ‘Sorry,’ I would say, not meaning it, having crunched a prawn cracker ‘too loudly’, and inevitably my non-belief in the apology would find expression in the utterance of the word itself – my ‘inner life’ would revolt, as though on principle, not permitting itself to be misrepresented for the sake of matrimonial harmony – via a stress on the second syllable. Her own prawn cracker would be stilled before her mouth. ‘Say it like you mean it,’ she would say, and in doing so render the task of authentic apology impossible, for not only was a double apology now necessary, firstly for the initial act (for which I remained unrepentant) and secondly for the failed performance of the initial apology (for which I also remained unrepentant), but because the apology, like a confession, was only meaningful when made under no duress. ‘Sorry,’ I would say, my voice pitched cartoonishly high, as though indicating a desire to escape through a secret hatch in the roof of my throat. ‘Are you serious,’ she would inquire wearily, a weariness which had, I think, embedded somewhere within it a degree of sympathy for us both, now that I had set us on a path of pain from which there could be no deviation. ‘You know that drives me insane,’ she would say, her face corseting somewhere in the region of her eyebrows, baffled both by the sheer avoidability of the situation and my willingness to bring it about. ‘Sorry,’ I would also say, in the second condition (of meaninglessness), when presented with evidence of my emotional carelessness, as when I neglected to moderate my account of successful progress with my thesis in light of her own stalled effort; authentically contrite, at first, but self-conscious about earlier instances of feigned contrition, this self-consciousness contaminated the ‘genuine’ utterance with an almost robotic stiltedness, the inadequacy of which would somehow, magically and inexplicably, strike us as funny: we would never know each other, we had no inner lives, the entire world was some kind of elaborate, luminous hologram.
It was almost as significant as the thing itself, then – after I had finally done something truly terrible – that I more-or-less involuntarily opted out of this ‘sorry’ dynamic, and said, to both our surprise, ‘I’m not sorry’. A year or so into my PhD, I’d met Lena, a lecturer in the English department also interested in ‘poetry and revolution’, and who I had been sleeping with, once a week, ever since. ‘I’m sorry you found out like this,’ I said, at some later stage, which was in fact true; it was an embarrassing way for her to find out, and embarrassing for me, too, since it immediately altered my internal narrative of the relationship with Lena (both structurally and grammatically), so in a sense I was apologising to both her and myself, which made it easier on all counts. She had checked our shared bank account online, which she often did, being entirely in charge of our limited finances, and had seen an outgoing expense of £80 (which Lena and I would normally split in cash) for the hotel in Reading where we would ‘retire’ after the graduate seminar to fuck for two hours, before getting the train back to London and our respective spouses. ‘How did you spend £80 at a bar?’ she asked, stirring the chickpea curry that was to be our lunch for the week. I fainted. When I woke up, propped against a kitchen cupboard, she was holding a bag of frozen peas, wrapped in two sheets of kitchen roll, to the back of my head. ‘I’ve been having an affair for a year,’ I said. It was only after a long pause – during which we looked at one another as though one of us had discovered the other, untouched by modern civilisation, deep in an uncharted region of rainforest – that I executed what we at one point later referred to as my ‘reverse-apology’.
For three weeks we hardly left our flat, except to go out into the garden to smoke together, usually in silence. Our border terrier, August, would trot out between us, and, having located one of the few clearings on the paving stone, stare at us ‘mournfully’ as he shat. When we returned indoors, it was like entering a heavily polluted zone. We had always had to work hard not to live like children: there were normally dishes left on the side, old newspapers and glossy magazines scattered, water-warped, on the bathroom floor, and beige, wiry dog hair crosshatched every surface – but now the semi-serious embarrassment that had driven us to keep up a bare minimum of domestic cleanliness was gone. The dog hair repulsed us, for example, but with the recognition that it was repulsive came the understanding that nothing could be done about it.
We stayed up late, talking, among our objects. She became methodical in analysing my character, its flaws, some of which I could be blamed for, some not. I was reluctant to speak but when I did it was not difficult to be honest. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she would continue with a conversation that had ended several hours earlier, when we’d both fallen asleep. Very soon it began to feel as if we were floating somewhere out of time, desperately, comically adrift, as though in a casino or on a cruise ship. That it was summer hardly registered, most days, except in the lines of light which extended themselves from the edges of the curtains across the red carpet with an increasing intensity and precision of heat and colour. The outside world entered through her phone. Since I was virtually inert, she took it upon herself to tell our friends and family what I’d done. I heard her in the kitchen on the phone to my mother.
‘He says he’s not sorry,’ she said, briskly. ‘Basically, he’s a cunt.’She began to go out on a series of expeditions to tell close friends, then less close friends, then acquaintances. These trips would last four or five hours at a time. She would come back and tell me how the news was being received by our social world.
‘“What a bastard”,’ she said. ‘Then he could barely speak. He was just sat there shaking his head. And when I told him we were still sleeping together he said I was insane.’
‘What do you think,’ I asked.
The more she went out, the less capable I felt of doing anything. It appeared to me that we had a small, shared resource of energy, and she was using all of it. Her activity levels soon approached normal levels. She cooked all our meals and cleaned the bathroom, and a sense of time passing was re-introduced by her routine of disappearance and reappearance each day, sometimes at night.
‘What are you thinking about,’ she asked me one day, as I was lying in bed.
‘I miss Lena,’ I said.
She lay down next to me and we both cried, in a stuttering, semi-committed way, that nearly developed into laughter, then she improvised a kind of Chinese burn on the back of my neck and went out.
Several days after that, Lena called me. I had sent a single, melodramatic text – ‘she knows’ – and had heard nothing back. After watching the phone ring for the fourth time, our hands on our faces in different configurations, she finally said, ‘Pick it up.’
Lena was crying. After several minutes, I passed the phone to her. Lena was terrified that she was going to tell her husband, the university, that her life would be over. She was feeling suicidal. I smoked six or seven cigarettes in the garden, trying not to listen to her unintelligible reassurances through the kitchen window.
‘You understand that I can’t be reassuring her,’ she said, handing me my phone, an hour later. ‘You understand that.’
There was something newly compelling about her in this period. It was as though the badness of my behaviour had activated or made possible some part of her that had previously been dormant or nonexistent. She had been granted the license to become candid, and unconventional, by my betrayal and subsequent non-apology. There was a clarity to her thinking during this time – something precise and almost hygienic about the way she anatomised my personality – that made her extremely attractive. It was when she was at her most exacting that I became most interested in her. I found myself thinking that if she had been in pain more frequently earlier in the marriage, or had displayed these powers of perception, I might not have wanted someone else. I said something to this effect at one point, and she indicated that she thought it was probably true and that though she wished none of it had happened, how she had reacted to it was not uninteresting to her.
Some more weeks passed – during which I had stopped washing regularly, and only reluctantly changed out of what I referred to, at first jokingly, then not-jokingly, as my ‘habit’ (grey t-shirt, grey jogging bottoms) – and I sensed that her feelings about my non-apology were slowly changing from ‘bewildered hurt’ to ‘wary admiration’ (with frequent regression to the prior state). She also observed this change within herself as one of the ‘interesting’ and ‘unexpected’ consequences of my actions. The position I maintained was that I hadn’t apologised because I hadn’t wanted to excuse myself. Since what I’d done, I said, was inexcusable, I hadn’t wanted to risk excusing it by apologising. This was the fundamental principle that underlay all my behaviour, but though it led me to behave in ways I didn’t fully understand, once I’d decided on it – or, rather, it had been decided on by my saying it – there was nothing to do but continue in that vein. ‘I’m not sorry,’ I would say, repeatedly, in some variation on these words, ‘and I’m not going to explain it to you. Doing so would make no practical difference to our situation, but I would almost certainly use it as an opportunity to paint myself in the best light. I’m not going to do myself any favours, and I’m not going to let you do yourself the harm of forgiving me.’
She would sometimes, in the periods of bewildered hurt, apply her new methodical tone to try to persuade me to explain what I had done, to confess my reasons, to let her forgive me.
‘I can understand why,’ she said to me, many times, in so many words, smoking and nodding her head, ‘I can see how this can happen. I can totally see how you might fall in love with someone over shared ideas. I can see how you might have gotten bored of me. I can see how you might have just wanted to do something for the sake of it, because your life is boring, because you’re going to die, whatever. I can imagine being weak and just wanting to fuck someone. I can imagine being drunk and making a mistake and then repeating that mistake over and over again sober, and somehow rationalising it because of the way it happened that first time. I can imagine making a mistake in order to have to apologise for it later on. I can even imagine how you might even think of this as a gesture of love toward me. I can imagine a hundred other reasons to do it. I would just like one to focus on.’
I did feel sorry for what I’d done, intermittently – or at least felt things I thought of as contrition or regret or guilt or even sadness – but my inability or reluctance to articulate it refined the feeling in some way, made it potent and palpable. Some days, I was buoyant with the feeling. Emboldened by and in tribute to her new fearlessness, I became more fearless myself, ‘fearless,’ I said, one night, reading aloud, pacing at the foot of the bed, ‘in the terror of my shame’. She helped me to this understanding in one of her monologues in the mode of wary admiration. She remarked that she understood why I was refusing to change my untenable position, that she admired that refusal, in fact, and was even a little grateful, since I was trying to introduce a new principle of rigour into our discourse about feeling. She had begun to feel that a deeper affection than she had felt us previously capable of was now becoming possible.
Then, for several days at a time, she would call me cunt. That became her name for me.
‘Pass me the remote control, cunt,’ she would say.
‘Goodnight, cunt,’ she would say.
‘Cunt, are you finished in the bathroom,’ she would say.
Late one night or early one morning, sometime in June, having reached what we mutually agreed was a point of ‘terminal obduracy’, we had an illumination. We decided, with the urgent, impatient conviction of the desperate, that the only way to change the situation was to do it (the past) differently, as in one of the films we’d been watching recently. The way to do this was to meet in the bar of a hotel that night, and behave as though we didn’t know one another. I would be given the opportunity to cheat on her with her, and by taking the correct path would make some practical reparation, and enact some change of character, of which the verbal account could only ever be an unreliable, unproven token. This would also erase the possibility that what I wanted was ‘a stage on which to parade my disgrace’. (Additionally, confusingly, I sensed there was the possibility, though unspoken, that if I were to cheat on her with her then that would also be considered an oblique gesture of fidelity, or at least of restored and confirmed attraction.) It was as we began to organise the particulars of this absurd and childish situation that the first traces of ‘authentic warmth or humour’ in weeks began to emerge between us. We were both distantly amused by the fact that our unprecedentedly difficult situation could be resolved by the successful performance of a ‘trite bourgeois fantasy’.
I had drunk three beers, and basically forgotten the purpose of my being in the shitty, leather-themed hotel bar, by the time she lifted herself onto a stool two stools down from me. For a few minutes I kept pretending to reading my book, while tapping my foot to some internal rhythm, aware that that’s exactly what I would do if I were trying to attract the attention of a woman in a bar.
‘Hi,’ I said, laying the book on the bar and turning toward her. I paused, staring, unable to think of something to say for a long time. I looked around the empty bar. ‘Do you want a drink?’
She nodded toward the television screen.
‘What do you think,’ she replied.
I ordered her a beer. She made a barely perceptible, possibly ironic ‘cheers’ gesture with her bottle.
‘What are you . . . why are you here,’ I asked.
She looked at me flatly.
‘Why do you think.’
I looked back at her, then grew impatient or felt embarrassed by her reluctance to wear an intelligible facial expression.
‘I – I know why I’m here,’ I said.
‘Good for you,’ she said.
I drank the rest of my beer.
We were both looking at the TV screen.
‘Leave, or –?’ I asked, depressed by how far I sensed I was from being able to experience humour.
Now the expression on her face was, I think, definitely ‘pained’, or ‘anguished’.
‘I don’t,’ she said, waving her hand over the bar surface, as if she were refusing a cigarette or an additional card.
We watched the TV for a while.
‘Let’s go upstairs,’ she said, after a long pause.
I looked at her for an indefinite period of time. I cleared my throat, and looked back at the TV.
‘Uh – no, thank you.’
I watched the celebrations, the movement of people’s faces saying celebratory things. Was the barman happy, for example.
She got down and moved to the stool next to me. She leaned her face to the side of my head, near my ear.
‘Let’s go upstairs,’ she said, in a whisper. There was a glaze on her eyes, which nevertheless seemed to be making small, rapid movements from side to side.
‘Are you –?’ I asked, furrowing my brow a little, then quickly erasing the furrow.
‘It’s upstairs, now, or,’ she said, suddenly speaking above a normal level. She then leaned in again and hovered her hand near my face. ‘Please – do this.’
I pulled myself away from her slightly, enough for her to understand the meaning of the gesture. Her body seemed to crumple a little. She was looking down at her palms with some intensity.
‘It’s the only thing, just, and then it’s done. But if not, then – well, I can’t.’ She turned to me with a suddenly open expression. ‘But I have,’ she said, emphatically.
I struggled to imagine what she had.
Her face seemed to elaborate on my own expression of bewilderment.
I looked back at the TV. I pushed the empty bottle slowly around on the bar with my index finger for a while, reluctant to look at her.
‘If we don’t, then –’ I could make out her nodding in my peripheral vision. ‘I – for me, I think, it’s the other way.’ I tilted my head, trying to summon a feeling of irony. ‘It’s unusual – out of character.’
The tension in her body as she sat on the stool communicated that this was beside the point.
Several people were interviewed in different locations around the country, expressing different views and having different feelings about the situation.
‘If we’re going to, we should –’ she said, at last.
I nodded and stood up.
As we got into the lift, as the doors were closing, as the lift said, ‘doors closing’, I realised I could sense myself in ways I never had before, not all of them good.
‘You know that feeling when you feel like you’re having a kind of perfect moment, but the only thing that would perfect it would be your absence from it?’ I said.
She exhaled audibly and walked out of the lift, then, looking back at me as she slowed toward the door of the room, said, quietly but loud enough for me to hear, ‘Wait here’.