I tell a number of stories at my writing seminars. A participant recently asked me whether I had ever written them down, one of them in particular. Some of them are already here on the blog, but not the one she was asking for. So here it is along with the story I usually tell immediately afterwards.
* * *
The first is the everyday tragedy of a couple of young lovers. They were perfect for each other, very much in love. All their friends thought they were destined to be with each other, to live happily ever after, as did the lovers themselves. There was only one problem: he was not, if you will, "the commitment type".
It was not that he couldn't be faithful to her. There were no other women. It was just that he was not very good at keeping his appointments. They would arrange to meet under the tree and he would forget to come. They would arrange to meet by the river and he would arrive hours after she had already left.
They arranged, finally, to meet at the café. This time, he arrives just as she had finally decided, after waiting for almost an hour, that it would never work for them. She had already gathered her things together and gotten up from the table.
As she sees him enter, tears well up in her eyes. But she is resolved. She walks towards him, and then past him. He understands the look she sends him. It's over between them. Their feelings for each other are not enough. Feeling slightly weak, he steadies himself on the bar, sits down, and orders a drink.
* * *
The second story is about you. Imagine, if you will, that you have a real job, one where you actually have to show up every day. One morning, you wake up with a terrible cold. An awful cough. Snotnosed. You're even running a fever.
So you call your boss and tell her you won't be coming in today. She's a good and understanding boss and simply tells you to get well soon. She'll find someone to cover your tasks until you get back. You climb back into bed.
Around noon the phone rings. It's a friend of yours asking about the book you borrowed, weeks ago, which he needs back because he's studying for an exam. He's just downstairs, in the café, and do you have time to bring it to him? You consider telling him that you're deathly ill, but you've been meaning to return the book for weeks and feel too guilty about it to make this his problem. The café is just across the street, after all. You're not that sick.
So you get dressed and drag yourself down the stairs and into the café. (Just outside a woman is crying. Inside, at the bar, a man is slumped on a barstool getting a drink from the bartender.) Your friend is sitting at a table, smiling, waving you over.
You lay the book down on her table and, at that moment, you feel terribly weak. You put a hand to your head and steady yourself with the other on the back of a chair. "Sit down," your friend says. "You look terrible." You sit in the chair and tell her how sick you are and that you really should be back in bed, and at that moment your boss passes by outside the café.
You don't see her, but she sees you. The moment passes, you get up, your friend thanks you for the effort ("You really shouldn't have!"), and you return to your apartment and your bed. You recover from your cold and return to work. Your boss does not mention the episode and you cannot quite explain the change in the mood between you. It is, of course, especially the next time you call in sick that something will be different.
The trust between you has been broken. It's a tragedy because your intentions were entirely good. The relationship has suffered merely because of the "optics", because of an unfortunate and entirely natural interpretation of "how it looks".
* * *
There is only one way to build relationships. You must make promises and keep them. The young man must promise his lover that he'll meet her and he must keep his appointments. If you tell your boss you need to stay in bed today, then you must stay in bed as promised.
Your relationship with yourself as a writer (or your writing self) is similar, except that, since you're the same person, your writer knows at all times exactly why you didn't keep your appointment. There are no optics. You know not seems.