We met at a café and got talking. Then, as one long black turned into another, your story came out. Easier to tell a stranger.
Our friendship lasted less than two hours but your words – your resignation – came home with me, where they have sat in my heart like a ring of thorns. Like impotence. All I can do is write a letter you will never read, hoping that someone (anyone) might; and that something, however slight, might shift.
I asked about your bandaged hand and you said, “My ex.” Sensing my next breath you told me that he had held your hand over a stove top flame. You had apparently looked at another man, a friend of his. “He was just jealous,” you sighed.
It felt like you were making excuses for him. In a way, this struck me more than the actus reus. I apologise now if, in my righteous fury, I ranted at you – another man forcing his world into your head. But the thing is, Eleanor, even if you had slept with your ex’s friend, or indeed a hundred others, there is no excuse.
I have been jealous before. I know how awful and irrational and maddening it is. I too wanted to lash out. But didn’t. Not because I am pure or politically motivated, but because I understand that pain is not a free pass. My hurt is not permission to hurt you. Neither is my love a lever of control. Indeed, if my love is true, it is a measure of letting go.
Yet, some things are harder to set aside. I carry you in my memory now, along with countless others. Partners, friends, housemates, work colleagues, former students…young women in cafes. And men too. Rape, incest, beatings, psychological violence. All the tricks of predation, so often wearing the mask of love. Is it selfish to say that I am sick of hearing stories like this?
Dear Eleanor, I see your bandaged hand, your wounded eyes, and I am incandescent with the fury of the helpless. If I began this missive as a battle cry I know already that things have gone beyond that. Beyond my sanctimonious posturing.
There is an instinct in me that wants to enfold and protect you, to bat away the abusers. Some will decry this as sexist and paternal – another wannabe knight polishing the armour of his wanton vanity – but still I feel it. Still I tell myself that I would love you better. That your hand would not be swathed, your flesh puckered and wincing.
But that’s ego. Most likely, nothing I say here, nor anything I told you during our brief companionship, will keep you safe. This is just a bunch of words. The lexicon of useless virtue. Worse, the finely crafted edifice of an empire in disguise. Because the predators aren’t listening. What they hear are other lies. The ones that tell them it’s okay. That somehow you deserve it.
I picture you, Eleanor, and think too of all the others, and it becomes real. This is not just an issue; it is human life. It is the poison in the veins of relationship. It is the fear of love. The distortion of sex. Blood spilled. Fingers burned. None of which is the drama of my failing or the theatre of my rage.
Forgive me. All of you. For I have only spoken. When I take my next long black – alone – and look across at the empty seat adjacent, you will each be with me. And I will abandon you again. As I always do. With the best of intentions, and just a little of your bruising. How fortunate I am to have only empty, gestural anger as my wound.
No one will need to ask me about bandages.
PS: To be clear, Eleanor is not her real name and her injury is a not a burnt hand. I have altered these details on the off chance that she (or anyone who knows her) reads this post. Why? Because she told me that she has been lying to friends and family about the manner of her ‘accident’ – and I do not have the right to divulge her secrets.