Monday, 27 July 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 15 When We Were Young

A car trip is a can opener to prise open the psyche and spill out the contents of two people trapped inside. For the driver, conversation is a distraction from the mindless work of guiding the car. He has control over where talk goes, directing the flow of words with less effort than it takes to turn the wheel. The awkward silence or the pregnant pause almost doesn't exist in a car, because there is always the ready excuse of the job at hand or the distraction of the evolving scenery. The passenger has a different perspective. Conversation is not a distraction but something to ward off boredom or sleep. The passenger is an observer, a supplicant, a second class citizen in the confessional booth of the front seat. It is an unequal relationship, a delicate balance between being guided and being manipulated. Tess wanted to drive first, and said little during the journey past the marquees of Civil War names on exit signs for Manassas, for the Rappahannock River and for Fredericksburg, on down the road towards the capital of the Confederacy. I respected her silence, content to watch the Northerners heading south like flocks of pale birds craning their skinny necks in search of the Southern springtime sun. I feigned sleep, my head turned towards her, and looked at her profile in the early morning light. Tess had a strong nose, with dark eyebrows which met in the middle of her forehead and alway gave her an intent look, as if she were puzzling over some difficult maths problem. She never plucked them, which in the perverse modern world could be seen as sort of an affectation, but which I found attractive. There was an almost mannish quality to her, a square jaw which even in her late thirties had lost none of its strength. Her hands, positioned comfortably on the wheel at ten till two, were strong with veins like hedgegrows. Nonetheless there was something very feminine about her, the earth mother with a simple haircut and auburn hair which had lost none of its natural luster in spite of the odd grey strand. She was no classic beauty, but if anything she had improved with age. Durable, I suppose is the best word to describe the way she looked. She had honesty written all over her. Perhaps the honesty was what scared the shit out of most men. I found myself wondering why she had never married, and as we passed Fredericksburg I decided to break the silence. She had quite independently come to the same conclusion. "WhenwewereWhyhaven'tyou.." we both blurted out simultaneously, our words climbing on top of one another across the front seat. We laughed, struck by the irony of choosing the same millisecond to talk after forty minutes of silence. "You first..."she said, quickly adding, "Why haven't I what?" I smiled. "Do you want me to ask or answer? Your choice." "Okay. You ask me first," she took her eyes off the road only briefly, a plaintive glance that said go easy on me. I think she knew what question I was going to ask, and was secretly glad that it was I and not she who would bring the subject up. "Why haven't you ever gotten married, Tess?" Her gaze remained steady and her head didn't turn. She took the briefest of moments to respond, but I knew she had correctly anticipated my question. "I never found anyone good enough for the bad in me," she said quietly. This was not at all what I had expected to hear, and I didn't really understand. "What do you mean by that?" "I've always wanted to live my life on my own terms," she said, "and I suppose you could say I have, at least from the outside. I mean, I live alone, I make my own schedule, I've had..." she looked over briefly, "...a modicum of success." I said nothing, and her words hung out over a cliff before dropping away in the silence. "But..." she sighed. "But what?" "But really I have always been second in line. Second behind Stokely. Second behind my family's name. Second behind what was expected of me. Second as a woman, I suppose. It's our lot." I didn't want to get into a discussion about the plight of women. "But what has that got to do with being bad?" "There's a part of me which wants to rebel and just say the hell with everything, and I am always fighting against that part. And I guess I was always looking for someone who is strong enough to bring me back to creating something good...I don't know...a family, another chance, a reason to pass things on to another generation. To be....first for a change." "You mean someone to be the father of your child." "It's not just that, though I suppose that is a large part of it. God knows, my mother keeps reminding me of the biological clock ticking away." She sighed again and looked across the median at the onrushing traffic. "Sometimes I look at all these people heading somewhere in a hurry and I ask myself: What's the point? Where are we going? Why bother if we all end up like Aunt Lillian anyway? I don't know...It seems such a bad attitude to inflict on someone for a lifetime." Appearances are deceptive. This came from someone who had resolutely played on in spite of a broken leg. "But that's not bad, Tess. That's just being human. We all feel that way. The truth is we'll never know where we are heading or what we'll see or why we do what we do..." I paused. "...or who we spend our time on the planet with." She looked at me when I said this, and I know she thought I was talking of Lydia even though in fact I was thinking about the future. "Can I ask you my question?" she said. "Shoot," I replied. "When we were young, what did you think of me?" When she said this, I realised how things between us had changed over time. Now there was none of the tension that I felt in those days, the competitive jousting, my view of her as Stokely's kid sister outside the boundary of our little circle of the Brains Trust. Now we were just two people with a past, part common and part our own, with almost forty years of pain and joy and love and hate and success and failure and all the ghoulash of human experience. Before, time had been an obstacle on a road we had both been hurrying along to somewhere else. Now it was a bridge between us. "When we were young..." I began. "...when we were young I was intimidated by you." "Intimidated?" She laughed. "That hardly seems possible. You and Stokely were always lording over me from that club of yours....what was it called?" "The Brains Trust." "The Brains Trust. You boys were something. Modest too." She smiled a side road smile but then immediately got back on the main track. "Why intimidated?" she asked. "Because you were smart. Because you were committed. Because you were a woman." "Were?" "Are. Sorry." "Anyway, you seemed to know where you were headed and the rest of us were just bouncing along." "Did you like me?" "Yeah, sure..." I stopped. "What do you mean by like?" "Didn't you ever feel like asking me out?" I thought back. Of course I had thought of it. Maybe that's what I meant by being intimidated. The idea was there, but the timing never seemed right. "You know Tess, sometimes you get so close that you might as well be far away. You can't really see. You can get any....perspective. You were Stokely's kid sister." "You see what I mean? Second behind everybody." I looked over at her and waited until she had made eye contact, long enough that I noticed the clear green of her irises. "I said were, Tess. You've grown up now." Sometimes in life you can feel change happen, like walking up a see-saw and reaching the exact moment when the balance tips in the other direction. We continued talking, words flowing between us easily like electrons between magnetic poles. It seemed that our original purpose for going to Valhalla had been momentarily shoved aside. We switched over driving at Richmond, and as we neared Matthews, Tess's eyebrows knotted in concentration as she tried to recall exactly where amongst the scrub pines and dirt roads we could find Jake's cabin.

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