He made his way through the crowd but he had never felt quite so alone. The sea of faces registered his presence but only as an obstacle in their path; an object around which they had to navigate so that they might move forwards with their own lives. To them, he had no past, no future, only a present that currently impeded them.
Finally, he reached the table where Laura was waiting. She looked up and smiled; not a beaming smile; nor a joyful smile; nor even a loving smile; but just a simple smile of acknowledgement. He placed the glasses he’d been carrying onto the small, round table and sat down opposite her as her smile faded.
They had known each other for what seemed like a long time. Their shared existence bound them together and there was a lot that they loved about each other. But as time went on he had begun to wonder if they actually loved each other. He was happy when he was with her. And she seemed happy too. When she needed help, he was there for her without hesitation. If she was in distress, he was her knight. She had become part of him, to care for and defend; and the idea of being needed in this way gave him a strong sense of pride and satisfaction. But was that love?
If that was love, why did he still feel alone? If she was part of him, why did he not feel that he was part of her?
He looked at her across the table and gave a smile that was more sadness than joy.
“What’s the matter?” she should have asked; but she didn’t.
“What did you think of the movie?” he asked instead.
She gave the question some thought, gazing around the room as though she expected to find the answers out there, written on the sea of anonymous faces. Her response, when it came, was heralded by a lengthening of the first syllable; which in itself conveyed her ambivalence about the film. Her initial critique was short and guarded.
“How about you?” she concluded, returning serve.
He more or less paraphrased her opinion, with some qualification; and once basic concurrence had been established they both felt more comfortable about broaching details. But in truth, there was not a great deal to be said about this particular film and the topic was soon exhausted.
In the early days of their relationship, they had felt a compulsion to fill each moment together with conversation as if communication were like the rope that binds two climbers together. If they were to allow a substantial silence to develop, they feared losing their connection whereupon the fragile relationship might fall apart. Their mutual interest in movies allowed them to be together in silence, at least some of the time; and subsequently provided a topic to initiate their conversation when it became exigent. But recently, the movies they were seeing seemed less interesting, less stimulating; and only served the purpose of filling the void of silence that sometimes descended over them.
He knew what he had to do. He just had to find the courage to bring it out into the open. Time and again, he’d psyched himself to the point of talking; before capitulating weakly at the thought of what it might cost. He didn’t want their relationship to end. But at the same time, it couldn’t be allowed to go on like this. The silences were getting longer. And the movies weren’t working like they used to.
He looked across the table and found Laura gazing around the room, away to her right, just gazing as if in hope that she might find a door to let her out of the prison she felt herself in. He expected her to feel the force of his eyes upon her but if she did, she was ignoring it, as though preferring oblivion now to conversation. And with that, he knew that this was the moment, the point of no return. And if it meant the end of their relationship, it should be a quick end; rather than a slow, inexorable death.
“It’s my juggling, isn’t it?” he blurted.
“What?” Plucked suddenly and unexpectedly from her trance the question might have been uttered in a foreign language for all the sense it made to her.
“It’s my juggling. You don’t like my juggling.”
“What is this about, Desmond?” she asked, shaking her head; the persistent confusion etched in the furrows of her brow.
“I’m just making the observation that you never show any interest in my juggling.”
For a moment, words eluded her.
“I don’t mind you juggling, Desmond…” she managed to force the words through the bewilderment that almost paralysed her “…if that’s what makes you happy.”
“That’s my point. You don’t mind. I bet if we polled all the people in this pub right now, 75% of them wouldn’t mind my juggling; and the other 25% would say: ‘Yer, go on, let’s see ya’ then’.”
“There you go again. What you’re really saying is that a person would have to be drunk to appreciate my juggling. Not only do you ignore it but you treat it with derision; contempt even”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
He stared at her, sceptically.
“Honestly, Desmond. It’s just that I’ve never really been a fan of juggling.”
“You watch it if it comes on telly.”
“Only if there’s nothing else to watch.”
“But you never watch me when I do it.”
“I’m sorry. What can I say?”
She seemed at a loss for words. There was an awkward silence before Desmond took the initiative again.
“I don’t care about the 75% of people in the pub or what they think. I don’t even care that much about the 25% who might show an interest. The only one here I care about is you; and what you think. But I wonder sometimes if you really care about me.”
“Of course I care, Desmond. I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t care.”
A genuine expression of pain, emotional pain, had crept across her face. She looked up at him, pleading for him to understand.
“I’m afraid,” he began tentatively, “that you only care about part of me. You only admit into your emotional consciousness those aspects of me that conform to your expectations; and the rest, you simply shut out, pretending they don’t exist.”
“You mean the juggling?” she exclaimed incredulously.
“That’s part of who I am. It’s the real expression of who I am. It defines me. Do you imagine for a moment that the guy who stands behind the grille at the bank dispensing pittances to old biddies on pension day is the real me. The bank is just a job. It’s what I do to earn the money I need to buy dinner and movie tickets and these drinks.” On the last point he waved his right arm above the table as if to reveal the drinks in question. “My job at the bank is what I have to do. Juggling is what I choose to do.”
“Then why don’t you run away and join the circus?” she countered, revealing in turn, her exasperation.
Desmond realised that he might have taken this a little too far.
“I don’t want to become a professional juggler. I don’t want it to become the thing I have to do in order to survive. I want it to be my passion, my satisfaction, my way of expressing myself. And all I want is for the person I care about to understand and appreciate that; to encourage me and maybe show a little admiration once in a while.”
Laura looked down at the table, shaking her head.
“This might be difficult for you to understand, Desmond; but when I walk into the room and see three of the Waterford Crystal bowls that my Auntie Ailish from Cork gave me whizzing round your head, it’s not exactly admiration for your manual dexterity that is uppermost in my mind at that moment.”
“I haven’t broken them, have I? They’re still in one piece. Well, three pieces, to be exact.”
“That’s not the point either. You ask me to respect you’re right to express yourself; but do you care how I feel when you take something that I cherish and throw it around like it was a worthless piece of glass?”
Desmond sat back in his chair and reflected for a moment on what she had said. If anyone else had spoken to her in the way he had just done he would have jumped immediately to her defence. His feelings for her were that strong. He cared about her deeply, genuinely. And maybe she did care about him, in her own way. But did these feelings deserve to be called love if neither of them actually cared about what the other cared about?