Half as Good

Half As Good

In Short Story Issue Five by Stela Dujakovic

Half As Good

“Why does it feel like I’m going to become a character in one of your stories?” He asked me once. By that time I had drawn him into fictional realms already—had taken him apart to display and select the most convenient elements, had pulled a new skin over his flesh and muscles, had given him a new name, a new face, had transformed him into a collage only he would be able to recognize single markers of himself in. By that time he had melted with several others into someone new—or something new. It’s not a deliberate act. I do not meet people for the purpose of using them as templates, though it is true that some of them become just that—whether they want it or not, whether I intended it or not.

I confess and he warily demands to read it.

“You wouldn’t enjoy it,” I tell him.

“Why,” he asks back. “Is none of it positive?”

It takes me a while to spot something positive but that’s not the point.

“Some of it is positive. But most of it is observantly collecting little idiosyncrasies preferably without value judgment, gathering to show not to tell, like a quick glimpse through a peephole and that can be both brief fleeting pleasure and quick stinging shock.”

I’m not sure he believes it—but then I’m not sure I do.

“Can I ask another question?”

He has many questions.

“Why don’t you want to talk every day?”

This is a difficult one, more difficult than “do you share your sex life with your friends?” and certainly more difficult than “do you even want to see me again?”

He asked the question several times and I try to explain and are left dumbfounded too, concluding that either I’m not capable of explaining it right or, what would be even worse, that there is no reasonable explanation and my argument merely a cheap excuse to keep him at arm’s length.

“Is it because you’re scared?” He inquires.

“That’s part of it—but that’s also part of everything else.”

“Then why don’t you want to talk to me every day?” He insists now.

Every day, I’m thinking, comes with responsibilities. It’s a commitment. Every day means getting used to and becoming familiar with and growing together. Every day also consumes time and there is only so much of that. Scared is part of every day because it includes more than the loss of time, because every day also means advancing on ventures from which it becomes more difficult to venture back.

In my mind it sounds logical, also because I’ve grown used to it. I picture the gruesome sight of a cable tangle. Two different-colored fairy lights stored away in the attic of full-grown holiday-denying heathens. What is the need in disentangling unused, long-forgotten elements that have transformed into one unused, long-forgotten mess. I’ve also grown used to believing that it disconnects loneliness from alone and following this strand of thought alone becomes enjoyable, becomes easy and wanted.

The version I offer him is much shorter.

“I’ve been on my own for a long time and I’ve gotten good at it so that now I don’t have the need to communicate with another person every day.”

I don’t tell him that it makes me uneasy, but that, I feel, is included in “I’ve gotten good at it.”

After our second date, he asks me to accompany him to a birthday gathering to celebrate his colleague’s anniversary. He jokes that he could show me off and make them jealous. I fail to hear the joke and perceive it as an insult, asking me to escort him like a prize horse, not accompany him as a new friend.

For a minute I contemplate whether I could accept it as a compliment and do him the favor, but I’m past this age and past common desires to publicly flaunt myself for acknowledgment and admiration, so I shrug it off, decline most brutally with a mocking face and a sharp, irrevocable “no”. Let them indulge in such folly—their lives seem to depend on it.

He keeps informing me about the various ways I’m pretty in. He says things about my eyes I don’t see and things about my figure I disagree with and things about the smile I find appalling. He keeps pointing out appearance when all I want to hear is intellect, humor, good-heartedness, when I need him to look behind externals instead of fulfilling the obvious superficial cliché.

So he becomes a little less attractive and I become a little more annoyed because the things he says make him look desperate in ways I can’t agree with either.

We meet again and kiss in a public place—on a bench in a park like the others do. It’s a good kiss. Sensual. Authentic. Kissing him is easy—as easy as being around him, talking to him, looking at him, being looked at by him. Everything about him invites me to ease into it and I’m tempted, without a doubt.

We walk a bit and he reaches for my hand. I snatch it back saying: “Too romantic.” But only after a brief moment of mutual holding—sometimes I allow myself to get sucked into it.

The truth is, I despise such public demonstrations of devotion. It goes hand in hand with every day. Including everybody else makes it more official, more complicated to sneak out with witnesses accumulating. I withhold this piece of information and wonder if he suspects or perhaps he is puzzled, too busy wondering why kissing is allowed but holding hands forbidden.

More often than not he says the right thing in the right moment. A technique that can be perfected with practice. He is observant and attentive which makes him the ideal candidate to excel in this discipline.

I’m reminded of my friend’s warning to be more cautious. She was d’accord before she knew that he was neither born nor had grown up in Germany.

“Are you sure the things he says about himself are true? Where he lives and what he does for a living?”

I’m not. But then every new encounter comes with the same risk. I openly agreed with her to avoid a confrontation but still wonder: would she have voiced the same suspicion if he was Christian, or Western, or white? Of course it’s not what she said or meant but I’m a foreigner and prone to seeing and hearing subtle racism everywhere. Somehow I can’t help it. It’s become a habit over the years.

“Another one of your rules?” He remarks about holding hands. A rhetorical question.

I had set up a catalog of rules for our first and second encounter: no kissing, no touching, no sex, no compliments, no romance.

We agreed that it’s not a date, fully aware that by naming it differently it does not become something entirely different.

“What if one of us gets really attracted to the other?” He asked, pointing out the no-kissing rule.

“No kissing!” I exclaimed and that was the end of it.

He thinks the rules are for him—to keep him caged like a wild beast. The kind that lurks inside every man. The unstoppable sexual predator that needs to be tamed with high collars and shy glances, with covered skin and female decency. He thinks the rules are obviously enforcing gender stereotypes and that he—the man—is asked to control his carnal desires because I—the woman—am still a remnant of Victorian chastity. I let him be consumed by such stereotypical assumptions and refuse to mention that the rules are, in fact, for myself.

I’m bored by the things he says about men and women, boys and girls—constructed categories to culturally restrict and police gender identities so they wouldn’t lose the run of themselves. Trans and pan and bi and non and a and queer and… goodness who are these psychos coming up with all the categories, confusing us normal people. Why can’t they just be normal?

So I get tired constantly having to break open his rigid ideas of what men and women do and can and are allowed to and should or shouldn’t. I tell myself it’s because he works in fashion. I tell myself it’s because of cultural differences. I guide myself to value the reactions, which are more affirming than opposing. I’m relieved thinking he gets it until the topic comes up again—same shit, different example.

And I’m overcome by the realization that this is not an activity I want to be engaged in for the rest of my life, not with the person I share my private life with.

He asks me to tell one of my secrets, one that I’ve never told anyone before.

“You wouldn’t like it.” I warn him.

He insists again and I tell him that I had a serious crush on my female roommate—though this is information I had uncovered to friends before.

His face turns pale and he immediately informs me about something they say: “Once a woman has been interested in another woman, she can not go back to desiring a man.”

“That’s bullshit.” I counter. “Who told you that?”

“It’s a saying.”

“It’s a bullshit saying then.”

Seems to me as if it will forever remain a mystery who they actually are though they continue to be quoted and referred to on a regular basis.

He asks to see a picture of her.

“I’m not showing you a picture of her.”

I know what he needs it for though he doesn’t say. He wants to categorize in terms of commonly accepted beauty standards, to compare, to judge with one faint look whether she was worth being in love with. I still refuse. She is beautiful on the outside, but that’s not why I fell in love with her.

“I don’t think we have the same ideas about beauty.”

He ignores my remark.

So I turn into a dictator—though it’s not something I want to be or something I’m comfortable with. Making rules. Educating. Steering. Directing. I imagine myself angrily tapping the baton against the stand, exposing the difficult child with a pointed arm, chiding. Is this what it’s like to be in a relationship? I refuse to believe it.

I go back to the character I’d started to draw. Surprisingly, it does look a lot like him. But I’m not finished sketching so I agree on another meeting—another date if you will.

He raises me on a pedestal and proclaims that I’m a good person.

“You barely even know me.” I say—incomprehension wildly steering my head left and right.

“Are you not a good person?”

I’d like to believe that I am. Perhaps in a Brechtian sense—another sinner from Szechwan—flawed but good-intentioned, falling prey to the circumstances.

“Do you use people?” He asks confidently as if the answer to this question bears the ultimate truth behind my nature.

I have to rethink and thus rephrase my answer several times, from “I don’t” to “I don’t think I do” to “don’t we all use people in one way or another?”

He agrees but remains faithful to his conclusion. He must have done things he’s not proud of, I assume without investigating further.

There are many things I like about him—he is respectful and puts in a lot of effort though I give him every reason to back away and commence a new hunt somewhere else. Nevertheless, I continue to collect and name the qualities that bother me most to protect myself from the rose-coated mist that dazes objectivity and reason, that allures you to lose yourself in an emotional carnage.

We talk about past liaisons. I had met a man not too long ago who is still agonizing my thoughts, who somehow refuses to depart from my mind. I wasn’t in love but I was intrigued because he challenged me in ways I’m desperate to be challenged in. But he was or still is a patronizing and arrogant piece of semi-misogynistic shit, bloated with knowledge and intellect—the kind that outclasses every gorgeously toned suit, the kind that puts beauty to shame.

There is another man I still fantasize about. Covered in black ink from head to toe, devoted to pain-inflicting art that dissolves in the grave. I know him from a brief exchange and the self-portraits he picks out for his Web-character. I know he’s not interested but I cannot cease collecting pieces of him like a puzzle. I blame the Internet; it has produced an army of stalkers and sometimes I even pride myself in being a True Detective. But he remains out of reach and thus turns himself into a fictional treasure chest, allows imagination to proliferate unruly. Something tells me that he is trouble, perhaps, comes to mind, it’s my friend’s biased voice again ringing in subconscious realms, telling me that the man who appears disorderly on the outside must be untidy on the inside too. But I give him a decent character, with decent intentions, flawed beyond doubt, but a more respectable Szechwani than I could ever imagine myself being. So I give him a disposition which defies the odds—because I believe there are many exceptions to the rule and also because it rounds the edges from a character-building perspective. And there is nothing more satisfying than a round character.

In the end, I’m still not sure what to make of him—of us. Sometimes I think that I want to see him again—most of the time I’m certain I don’t. Sometimes I think he’s not worth it—most of the time I want to spare him from the pain because he deserves someone who knows how to appreciate all of his qualities, someone who cannot wait to talk to him again.

“Are you looking for a serious relationship?” I asked him once.

“I’m looking for good company but if a serious relationship develops out of that, I’m not going to fight it.”

A diplomatic, a perfectly agreeable answer, hopeful but not demanding, honest but not presumptuous. A stable basis with potential.

And while everybody else would see the potential, all I see is gooey despair reeking from his pores, spreading an odor that makes my body cringe. He remains persistent and I read it as despair. He keeps making compliments and I read it as despair. He contacts me every day and I refuse to be impolite so I answer. But I answer brusquely, snappishly on edge because I have to explain once again why I can’t talk to him every day, wondering whether he is listening at all or perhaps still lost in another stereotypical idea convinced that women say one thing but mean the exact opposite which then activates his Neanderthal-nature and the hunting-instinct that intrinsically distinguishes men from women—a scenario in which I become the prey in a world ruled by binary biological supposition. I’m already annoyed but he still makes new approaches to engage me in a lengthy conversation, one of those conversations we’d already had and it starts to feel like we’re going round in circles and that again feels like a waste of time.

It becomes pathetic and more personal than I’d intended it to be.

“I want to get to know you and I think you want to get to know me too.”

I’m no longer sure that I do.

“But that’s something that happens over time,” I say. “And not within a few weeks texting back and forth. You want too much—too many questions answered at once, too many demands, too fast. You say it’s not a big deal but what I perceive is that you want to fall in love and kiss and hold hands and romance and introductions to friends and colleagues and strolling down the city promenade weekdays after seven and Saturday through Sunday and all this nonsense that people do.”

We fight.

“What is wrong with what people do?” He asks innocently desperate for truce.

“Nothing,” is what I say. Everything, is what I want to say. But this again would press for another detailed explanation that could end in another misunderstanding, in incomprehension and fight, in an existential crisis perhaps. And I have lost patience and decide that I need to get out because it makes no point having this debate with a stranger I kissed once on a bench in a park. I’m perplexed by the thought that some people have these conversations every day and then claim to love each other dearly.

I stop texting back.

He makes many more attempts.

But I refuse to react.

So the story ends in unannounced silence, first one-sided then forcibly mutual, a blank space that carries all the meaning and communicates the most essential bit of information: not interested. A discipline I had perfected over many years. Somehow I cannot help that either; I seem to be good at it.

He becomes the villain of the story with a macho personality disorder and stalker-tendencies, with exaggerated traits that bulge out like frog eyes, demanding and aggressive, uneducated, insatiable. I do see my part in it too: the lusting seductress, leading him on with poses and sexy glances, long-lashed eyes that gleam even in shady corners and a sensual voice that causes immediate orgasms. And while my final look into the mirror that same day I left to meet him for a first coffee and a stroll ensured the sight of a regular person—black, not too tight jeans, a gray, regular shaped t-shirt, sneakers and a blue denim jacket that concealed most of my upper body shape, hardly any make-up, wind-ruffled hair—what he perceived was what some men imagine the lady on the other end of the sex line would always look like. And that’s where seduction also begins and I wonder how much leading on is allowed from my side then until I have earned my right to be raped.

And though I knowingly package him in the guise of a true villain—he had once asked for it—the narrative voice seems to suggest the existence and supremacy of another, more vicious creature that steers and dictates from between the lines, that subjugates masked as a victim. And those are surely the most gruesome oppressors, those who conquer and crush the genuinely innocent unexpectedly from behind.

The memory of him fades surprisingly fast. This again reaffirms my wicked intentions. A good person, I have to grin at the thought. I didn’t tell him that there’s a reserved seat ready for me at one of Mephisto’s cliché underground feasts. No doubt I would one day descend to claim it. But then, I find it difficult to imagine that he would have believed or even perceived the serious note within that joke—sometimes we appear unable to see beyond anchored perceptions. So I finish my story and go back to fantasizing about another man, write another story, create another character from another template, because it’s easier this way. Also, because I’m good at it.

About the Author

Stela Dujakovic

I’m a previously unpublished writer and young scholar who teaches English and American literature and culture at Paderborn University in Germany. I’m currently writing my PhD in literary studies on ‘old men’ but that does not keep me from writing creatively too.