The Split (Short Story)
A story I wrote about a year ago, inspired by that odd little sub-plot in Rear Window about Miss Lonelyhearts, only just got around to the final draft.
Lance arrived precisely eight minutes late. It was just late enough to set her to anticipating, late enough to get the heart a flutter without ruining any plans, fashionably late. Not that he knew this of course, such affectations would never occur to Lance, everything he did was genuine, easy and unpretentious. His eyes brightened as he saw her, and an earnest smile revealed straight white teeth.
“Hello wonderful” he said seemingly producing a bunch of flowers from thin air.
She smiled back at him, the smile he adored, and rising to her feet she thanked him graciously, but Lance could see a certain sadness in her beautiful eyes, and he resolved to treat her extra sweetly today. He took her chin lightly between his fingers and tilted her face upwards to a place a single lingering kiss upon her lips. He reflected, not for the first time, that they seemed to be made for each other. They fitted together so perfectly that it could only be by design. What made her laugh made him laugh, what pissed her off pissed him off, and when she was hurt he felt her pain. It had always been this way, from the very first moment together, and for Lance it seemed they were as much twins as lovers.
She laughed as if it at some private joke, an odd laugh, somewhere high in her throat.
“Lance, we need to talk.”
His ruggedly handsome face clouded with ruggedly uncomprehending concern.
“Something is wrong with the prettiest girl in the world?”
She laughed again in that worrying way.
“I’m fine darling…how are you?”
Lance was taken aback, what could she mean? He was fine, he was always fine so long as she was. Lance never felt down, never had an off day, although if they watched a news report about sudanese war orphans or abandoned puppies a single tear might grace his perfect cheek. You wouldn’t know it to look at him but he was a man of incredible sensitivity.
“I’m okay my love, but you seem sad, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong, I promise, I just think we need to talk. Would you like a cuppa?”
“No, but I can make you one if you like.”
That wan smile stopped Lance in his tracks. He couldn’t understand this, sometimes she’d be upset, she’d often tell him about her problems, and he always listened intently and tried to make her feel better. But she had never been like this before. She was never reticent, she talked to him as easily as Midas’ barber talked to his hole in the ground.
Lance sat at the ancient battered kitchen table so familiar to him as she busied herself with the kettle. He had loved her since the first time he saw her, he couldn’t explain it, but everything about her was wonderful to him, he simply could not imagine his life without her. Looking about the little flat, it occurred to him that he had no idea what had happened to the flowers he’d brought.
She sat across from him, and brushing the hair out of her eyes, took a deep breath. Held it. Held it until Lance feared she’d turn blue. Then, alternating between hasty rush, and intolerable pause, like someone pulling off a band-aid, she spoke:
“Lance, there’s something I need to tell you.”
He listened intently, eager to give whatever comfort he could.
“I think…I think I need to end this.”
Lance experienced the moment following these words with a perfect clarity of perception he had never before known. He could feel the blood rushing to his face, he could hear his heart beating, he could feel the sucking sensation of a void opening up beneath him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I can’t see you anymore. This…relationship, whatever it is, it has to stop now. I can’t do this any longer, its not good for me.” She covered her face with her hands. “This is so stupid.”
At first he didn’t understand. She was upset, that much was clear. He had seen her upset many times before, but whenever she was stressed, or lonely, or hurting, she went to him. That was how it worked, that was how it had always worked. When the world struck out at her she ran to his arms.
“I’m sorry, its over.”
For the first time in his memory Lance wanted things to be not as they were. He wanted to misapprehend, he wanted her to say “Only joking!”, he wanted the moment between words and realisation, and between realisation and consequences, to last the rest of his life.
She turned her head to an angle, almost curious at his reaction.
“You’re…I mean, you’re okay with this aren’t you?”
Another wholly unfamiliar sensation. It was a kind of heat. A heat in his chest, in his throat, in his head. You’re okay with this aren’t you. It was barely even a question. He felt this odd heat rising, and the thick, hot fog in his head obscured everything else.
His throat felt tight, he tried to clear it before he spoke.
“You’re dumping me?”
“I guess you could call it that.”
I guess you could call it that. The heat had flooded his eyes now.
“Then why the fuck would I be okay with this?”
She was taken aback by this, he generally only swore dryly, as in a witty remark. Or in bed. Lance was never angry, had never in his life been truly angry. He had always moved through her life without touching it, he fitted perfectly into her routine, he never asked anything of her. He didn’t so much as disturb the cushion he sat on. But now he was angry, desperate, pleading.
“Just tell me why, don’t I make you happy? What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing, you’re perfect Lance.”
His voice was cracking now.
“Then why? Please, please, I’m begging you, don’t do this.”
He shivered and shook, he felt like he was fading away. For the first and only time since they had met Lance was asking her for something and she had nothing to give.
“I didn’t think you’d react like this.”
“How did you expect me to react?”
“Well, I mean, this is crazy. Lance, I’m sorry, but you’re just, you’re not…real.”
He latched onto the ribbon of hope presented to him, she’d identified a fault, if he could show her that she was wrong, that he was genuine, he could change this.
“What do you mean? I’m always real with you baby!”
She looked at him so sadly that he almost felt guilty. Her mouth made the shape of a quiet “Oh”.
“I’m so sorry Lance, I thought you knew. I mean how could you not?”
“Knew what?” he felt gripped by the fear of another revelation.
“Its okay Lance, I’m sorry this is all my fault. Just – Just tell me, do you remember how we first met?”
“Of course I do, on your birthday, at the station. What does that have to do with anything? What’s going on here?”
“Please, just tell me what you remember about the first time we met.”
Despite himself Lance smiled at the recollection.
“We bumped into each other. Literally. We were both rushing to catch a train and collided on the platform. It was like being hit by lightning, I instantly knew I loved you, that I had always loved you. I was stunned, like a sleep-walker on waking, I couldn’t talk, I could barely move. We had both been carrying copies of Middlemarch, and as I was helping you with your stuff I accidentally picked up your book instead of mine. I couldn’t believe it, what were the chances? So I wrote my telephone number inside the cover before I handed it back to you. That was the happiest day of my life, it was as if I was newborn, and every day since I’ve grown happier and better for the love of you”
It was a well-trodden piece of lore, the creation-story of their world, and he recited it with the passion of a true believer. He watched her face intently, looking for any sign of a reprieve, hoping the magic memory would bring her to her senses, but for her part she seemed to be examining him just as intently.
“And nothing about the way we met seems odd to you Lance?”
“What do you mean odd? It was the best thing that ever happened to me, I thought it was the best thing that happened to you too.”
He physically shuddered as the nauseating realisation: this was the end of his life as it had been. She fixed him earnestly.
“Doesn’t it seem like kind of a weird coincidence? The book? Running into each other like that?”
“It was fate.”
Lance had never before felt uncertain saying that word, but now it hung flaccid in the air, embarrassing to the both of them.
“Where were you going that day Lance? Which train were you catching?”
He opened his mouth to answer, he thought he remembered every detail of that day, it was the least he could do to hold such a special moment in his heart. And yet he found himself drawing a blank.
“How did you get here today? What were you doing before you came round mine?”
“What is the point of any of this? What difference does it make where I was going or what I did before I came here?”
“You don’t know what you were doing do you Lance?”
“I don’t care, if that’s what you mean. Why are you doing this to me?”
He was afraid now, nothing was making sense, it was like the world was falling apart around him, the ceiling falling in droplets, the table sticking to the skin of his hands like hot solder, everything was coming away, everything was melting, he was struggling to hold on to his very sense of self. He had to remind himself that he was a person looking out of his own eyes, an individual separate from the table he sat at or the chair he sat on, separate from her. It was like trying to hold onto a dream upon waking.
“What’s your surname ‘Lance’?”
“I’m so sorry. I really thought you knew. I mean, how could you not? You have to understand Lance, I was lonely, I was so lonely, I’d been going through a really rough time and I just…I wanted someone there.”
“You found someone else?”
“No. I found you. Before we met I was on my own, I was broken-hearted, I thought I was going to be that way forever. You were my idea of the perfect guy, you were everything I wanted and didn’t have. I could picture you so clearly, I knew how you’d walk, how you’d sound, what you’d look like and how you’d look at me. All I had to do was tell myself you were there, sitting across from me.”
“What are you saying?”
“You’re not real Lance, I mean you’re really not real, you’re a figment of my imagination.”
Lance laughed, long and loud and scornful, but his eyes were full of terror.
She spoke in slow shuddering pauses, despite herself she couldn’t not think of him as a real person, despite knowing she was alone she couldn’t help but feel humiliated by every syllable. But she had to say it.
“It started off almost normal. Isn’t it normal? When you’re alone in bed at night, when you’ve been alone in that bed for so many nights, to lay there and imagine that perfect person who will roll into your life and make everything wrong about you right in the way no real person could. Isn’t it normal to conjure them up when you want it to feel like someone else’s touch? I don’t know Lance, as I sit here talking to myself, it does occur to me that I might be crazy. Is it crazy to give your dream guy a name? To talk to him aloud? To set two places for dinner? It felt so normal, everyday I went to work, I talked to people there about you, I…I showed them a picture cut out of a magazine. Every night I came home to you, and it felt real Lance. In my head I was just like everybody else.”
Lance tried to upend the table but his hands passed through it without disturbing so much as a teaspoon.
“I can…I can knock it over for you if it will make you feel better. Whatever you want me to make you do.”
Lance sunk back down into his chair, acutely aware that he was being watched with concerned, piteous eyes. He buried his face in his hands, took slow deep breaths to try and stay calm and then wondered if he actually needed to breathe at all. They remained like this in silence for some time before Lance finally spoke.
“I’m in your head?”
“So it’s all been a lie? Every moment, it never happened?”
“I swear it was more real to me than anything in my life had ever been.”
He looked into the face of the woman who had demarcated the span of his world.
“That is such incredible bullshit.”
Lance knew he should be feeling dread at the dawning knowledge of his own non-existence. But that wasn’t what put the tight, sick feeling in his chest. In the whole of their time together Lance had never questioned anything she’d said or done, there had never been a need. There had never been any needs or wants. The first taste of anger and fear of loss was dizzying, intoxicating.
“You have wasted my entire life. You’ve dragged me along like a balloon on a string because it was easier on you, you never even gave me a choice. What gave you the right to decide I’d want to be your imaginary boyfriend? Don’t you think you have some sort of responsibility? All the time and energy I put in, all this existence, and you let it go just like that? If you didn’t want me around then you should never have made me, and now you’ve made me, you owe me. You owe me better than this”
“Don’t you think this is hard for me too?”
“Then why? We were happy weren’t we? We can go back to that, forget about all this stuff. So what if I’m not real? Does that really matter in, y’know, the wider scheme of things? All we need to be happy is each other.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t need you to be happy any more Lance, this is really hard to say but I’ve met someone else.”
Lance didn’t want to let her see him letting her make him cry.
“Is he realer than me?”
She couldn’t meet his gaze.
“I knew it! Who is he?”
“You don’t know him Lance, you uh, don’t know anyone, I met him at work. I know you might not want to hear this but I think you’ve really helped me in a way, I’ve gotten a lot more confident, I find it easier to talk to people lately. I struck up a conversation with him and…I need to be with someone real Lance, I think I’m ready for it.”
“Please, understand, he’ll never love you like I do, he can’t. You and I are closer than you and another could ever be. One mind and one heart in perfect unity. Isn’t that what everyone wants? Isn’t that what love is?”
“No Lance, that’s what narcissism is. It really isn’t you, it’s me, just me. And I can’t do that, I need to know what it’s like to have a conversation that might turn into a fight, I can’t share every thought and feeling, I don’t want to know every nook and cranny. I need uncertainty, anxiety, boredom, miscommunication; I need to see what it’s like to live in the real world with all the attendant risks.”
Lance‘s heart stopped aching, he realised numbly that it had never really been his heart in the first place. If there was ever a core that was his alone, he drew on it now to face the end with dignity.
“You’re been everything to me, can I go on living without you?”
“As I understand it, that’s a pretty normal reaction when a relationship ends.”
“But what happens next? You’re all I’ve ever known. If we end then what becomes of me?”
“I’m sorry Lance, I can’t answer that for you. But I’ve always hoped there’s somewhere nice that dreams go when the dreamer wakes.”
Lance drew his last breath, held the scent of her for as long as he could and then let it go.
“I’ll always love you.”
“I’ll always love me too.”
The two of them smiled weakly, and then there was one.