I Have To Tell You
by Victoria Hetherington
(From I Have To Tell You by Victoria Hetherington, on sale now from 0s&1s LLC. Copyright © 2014 by, and reprinted with, permission of the author.)
Every friendship acts as some sort of social contagion—passing both the highs and lows of human behavior.
Sherene abuses drugs, friends, lovers and herself. Grace is overwhelmingly shy, and trapped by her own set of habits. During fourteen months of their early-mid twenties, we voyeuristically explore their relationship with each other and those they need the most.
We're granted complete transparency, through diary entries, emails and Google searches. The result is a torrid, honest look at the intense desire for human connection, the pressures of building an identity and what's left when we're finally alone.
"I just read a very good and unusual novel, I Have to Tell You by Victoria Hetherington. It’s the friendship of two young women — hungry for life and meaning, trying to make sense of who they are when they’re alone and who they are with other people, and making all kinds of mistakes — told through a medley of voices, their own and those of people they know...The story unfolds like pleats on a fan being opened very slowly, the author revealing crucial moments from unexpected angles and points of view. The book is lovely, slow, and liquid, an accomplished debut." — Diana Wagman in Los Angeles Review of Books
"Graceful and poignant, often redolent of Annie Dillard’s sparing prose rising to beautiful abstractions, open to the everyday’s influence on personal narratives...If there ever is a 'Great American Novel' (a probably stupid concept) this is how it should look—but of course it’s Canadian." — Joe Hogle in HTML Giant
“Where are you?”
“Just out walking.”
“You’re lying, Graham. You’re shopping. You’re looking at a couch right now. Or a light oak end table, right, with a plastic TV on top of it.”
“How can you tell?”
“Your voice – it’s got that particular IKEA tightness to it.”
I knew I was right: he was pushing a cart through the bowels of IKEA, through the deep black catacombs thrumming with canned sound, past trapezoidal friezes of furniture with their bright bursts of color – purple baskets, flowered pillows – past dozens of bedroom, kitchen, living room, dining room, patio, basement, hallway, den, and office permutations, pushing his cart one-handed, chewing his gum in my ear. Draining his meagre identical twice-monthly paycheque, maxing his credit cards. (Back when we were really dating, I declined to merge checking accounts; we fight over it every single time we’re drunk.)
“I’m inviting Tom,” I say, wincing: Tom, his much older friend from work, his grizzled programmer friend Tom, is his friend, not mine – although Tom enjoys my company much more than Graham’s, and not just, I think, because he wants to fuck me.
There’s still some morning left and I go buy lemons, wine, and bread, and on my way back from the store I walk past a bar, with its seats up on the long wooden tables, sun-soaked and abandoned, with last night’s sweat, care, and spilled beer long evaporated and already swelling in the late summer heat, and I feel sadness for Graham, and tremendous anxiety at shedding the responsibility of his happiness. In the beginning he kept speaking about our astonishing similarities, but this felt frightening and not true. We’re really, really very different, I told him through the wine haze as we sat on a splintering bench in the black trees, and I hope he listened. Of course he didn’t, not because he isn’t highly intelligent, but because I suppose he is so, so young, and eager to secure ongoing care, eager to canonize me, to understand me through the matrix of his needs: worldly but unscarred, capable and firm and nurturing, but gentle and feminine, intelligent but not combative, and so on. When he kissed me in earnest in my bed, with smooth, rhythmic assuredness and hungry pokes of tongue, I became unbelievably aroused – I couldn’t believe it. Shyly, but not as shyly as I’d have thought, he explored downwards, touching gingerly in circular patterns, asking me if I liked this or that, eventually rubbing me gently but with surprising confidence. Within days I became so attracted to the same specificities which initially repelled me a little: his funny gait, his gawky height, his habit, when talking, to tilt his forehead forward, and his effusiveness too, his indomitable energy. One sunny morning, one of those early spring days when we were falling in love – twitching and dizzy from it – he related a fairy tale he’d read: an old man works with children to create a giant kite, a kite built from a pastiche of whimsical things, a kite big enough to seize by the tail and escape with – everyone is only always running, the children are always running back and forth – and he cupped my breast in his hand, and I felt terrified. Were men my age always so young? So delicate, so in need of protection? I told him, you’re very, very lovely. Have you been told this before? And I meant that, but I also meant: you’ve had women touch you and you haven’t been changed – or have you, and how have you been changed? And he looked down and said a bashful yes, and I told him I felt an urge to protect him, and I meant that, but also: from me. Because when I was like you, nobody said this to me, they just took and took. They saw me in terms of my utility, as a kind of natural capital, and I just gave. And I was changed. And now I’m afraid for you.
And already it’s late afternoon, and Graham’s sitting on my balcony and the sun lights up his face and the fine hairs on his nose, his chin, his ears, below his lips glow with the sun, and his hair shines with youthful health, and he is magnificent.
“…I don’t know, he’ll get here when he gets here. Why do you keep asking?”
My face is flushed from sun and wine. “Because it’s my fucking house.”
“Every time you’re drunk you just want to fight,” he says, and I lean in awkwardly, dragging my chair behind me, and kiss his cool, tightly shut lips.
“When I’m drunk it just becomes clear that you’re just here to get away from your dad and the creepy childhood stuff in your bedroom. Do you even like me at all anymore?”
“Are we just airing all our paranoia, now? Is this what we’re doing? Because, OK, I’ve been unpacking and lugging all your shit and helping you set up the balcony and drinks and thinking all the while, fuck, you’re here to hang out with Tom,” he says.
“I’m here because this is my fucking house,” I say.
We sit quietly and drink. I say, “Sometimes I look down, over this railing –”
– cars zipping tiny and soundless, the roads curling and the roofs speckled with white-hot skylights, dark mottled patches of repair, no stakes, no people, no noise –
“– and I consider jumping. Sitting on this railing with my legs dangling over the side, and sliding right off. It’s not like I want to. But I consider it.”
“You consider it, then reject it. We consider everything, right? You're reminding yourself how important you are.”
Earlier, in spring, we passed someone’s garden, and you paused over the bright red tulips, and with your hand on the soft part of my side, you said, “Flowers and women, I love them, how beautiful and important they are.” Are you ever critical of how I matter?
But of course I’m being unfair: he’s precious to me too.
I say, “You’re depressed. You’ve transferred all your depressive need from me to drinking to shopping. What if I were depressed, too?”
“I’d suggest you move home, for a while.”
“It’s sure working out for you, isn’t it?”
He sighs. “As long as you love me, I’ll be fine.”
“You’ve never been fine as long as I’ve loved you.”
He leans his elbows on his legs, pressing his chin into the railing, shifting his considerable weight onto his knees. I wonder if the problem is that he’s meant for somewhere else: it’s such a strain on him to live in the city. He winces when metal screeches against metal, when strangers touch him on the streetcar, when landlocked pedestrians yell at each other, when the press of bars and rundown restaurants spark his claustrophobia.
There’s a muffled knock, and I turn and squint back through the dim stuff of my apartment. Tom is here, waiting in the white hallway, making a blank face at the other side of my door. Sweat springs immediately under my arms, on my back. I get up.
I close the door behind Tom and he turns to watch, his back to the sun angling in from the patio and the lines in his face shining with sweat. “You’ve had Amsterdam before,” he says, raising the enormous box of beer he’s carrying. Not “Is this OK?” Not, “Have you had Amsterdam before?” I shrug and nod, like, of course I have. Like, our lives vibrate with deeply felt similarities. Typical cheap bar stuff.
And as the sun sets we gulp back our drinks, slop out more, and wipe our mouths and start sipping again, the three of us, and as I drink one more plastic glass of my tart sun-heated wine and I feel a tiny gasp of my life leave me as I light a cigarette, as we’re talking about office dynamics, as the day passes into gray evening all the while – I feel such joy. Such sick excitement.
Because I feel my life pulsing around with my heart and my swallowing, but it’s pulsing outward, it’s leaving me slowly, as my body oxidizes, as I – drunk and stern and briefly in the bathroom – quickly examine the wrinkles around my mouth and the dullness around my eyes, and come out again, settling in the warmer outdoors, the clean up-high air. It is passing and this is exciting, it is passing and through this passing I will pass on to something new, I will create new things, meet and bond with new people, and become a better person, fix myself, but this passing is required – until there’s nothing left to pass.
While Tom stands with his back to us and pours beer into new glasses, twelve feet away and drenched in the kitchen shadow, Graham and I lean together in the heat of the sun, and he puts his lips to my ear: “You’re ignoring me.” I sip my drink and sigh, and he asks, “How could you be so selfish?”
“I’m selfish? You’re just here to milk me for reassurance,” I say, and his eyes widen. “That’s not true. I came to support you, to help you unpack.” And I realize, murky and sluggish and too late, that he’s probably telling the truth. And I wonder how often I’ve misunderstood him like this.
“Please, make him leave,” he begs.
“I can’t. I won’t,” I say, my chest tightening as if from truck fumes. “And I’m sorry that I invited you over and wasted your time. I wasted a lot of your time, and maybe you’re as fucked up as me, now. But you got something from it, didn’t you? I hope you did. I think you did.”
“You still love me,” he says.
“Of course. But I love everybody, don’t I?”
His whole body jerks and I hope suddenly that he’ll slap me. Instead he stands, shoving his chair back – it slams against the railing – and marches back through the house. Tom turns and they have a brief electric moment of sizing each other up, not speaking, their ribcages lifted and ready. I close my eyes and hear the door slam.
And as I press my fists into my eyes I see an evening earlier this summer, a day Graham and I both skipped work to get drunk and escaped the hot city for Toronto Island. The beach was small and the water was choppy – they’ve brought the sand here I think, he said – and he led me into the water, and I looked down into the silt and the weeds – some spread bright green and open across the brown surface, some wriggled beneath – and he sheltered me and allowed me to sit on him, weightless, and we jumped up and down together, splashing almost indecently loud in the evening quiet. The sun blazed close to the horizon, dipping down against the trees and lighting up the water, and a gray-orange dimness spread evenly through the woods behind us, and we thrashed back to shore. We shivered dry on the bench by the water, and I looked down at the goose bumps on his legs for an ages-long moment, trying not to touch him – he’s like a cat, sometimes he shrugs me off, focusing hawk-like on something else, something through a tunnel, something just beyond my understanding. He wanted to make a sandcastle with a pink abandoned castle mould we found half-buried in the wet part of the beach, and I bit back my hunger and tiredness and made the towers, stinking with river and fish, and stuck flowers in their grainy tops – playing the girl – and he dug a channel and built a dam with sand and rocks and sticks, blocking the castle from the gentle lake waves, playing the industrious boy. We often talk about how we’d be friends as children – though I’d be bossy and he’d be shy, we were both intense and focused and sensitive children, I think, coming up with never-shared worlds that time eroded, or that wilted immediately in the white-hot presence of other children our age – and he looked back as we towelled off and left, as the castle shrunk into four asymmetrical lumps and the darker splotch of dam receded, and he choked back tears. I think he was thinking: It might have been like this.
Tom comes back and all of a sudden, I need to share it with him.
“Tom, I have to tell you. Tom.”
“He’s not coming back. That was it.”
Tom shrugs easily. “I don’t know about that.”
“No, he won’t, because.” I pause. “I’m really depressed.”
“Well Graham, I mean, he’s not the happiest guy these days, right? Misery loves company, is all I’m saying. You know?”
“No, like. Yes, but.”
“But I’ve been awful to him, I think. Awful and impatient.”
“You should see him at work, like we had a party for this guy Luke’s birthday last week. He just stood around taking these little sips of the same beer, just waiting to leave. He’s like that all the time now – just waiting to leave. It would wear out anyone.”
“Wear, yes. Tom, I’m so tired.”
“Like sometimes I look down, over this railing –”
– I can’t look down this time, instead hearing the gentle shh of my neighbor’s patio door, watering her plants, singing softly to herself –
“– and I consider jumping. Sitting on the railing, looking out for a while, then like. Sliding right off.”
He’s looking at me but I’m looking out at the dying orange sun, meeting the water and illuminating the train tracks, which go on forever until they are swallowed by the big boxy factories, the sparkling Toronto waterfront.
And he looks away, saying:
“They’ve found that people who jump from bridges, they regret it as soon as they jump.”
“How can they tell?” I ask.
“Like from their brains. The more intact ones, I guess.”
“The ones who drown post-jump?”
“Exactly, and from interviews too. With survivors.”
And then it’s over, it’s left me, that vibrating important thing, and we’re sitting and not talking. As intelligent as I think I am, I’m young and vital, and cannot grasp not-living, non-life, maybe not ever – yet.
“I don’t know what it is, Tom,” I say, “but I’ve been dreaming about sex nonstop, about thick cocks and fucking.”
He looks at me.
“Last night I dreamed I watched a couple of men play soccer, and one of them, his thick hairy body was coming out of his uniform all over, and I watched his thighs and we saw one another and he stopped trying to keep himself in his clothing and told me, sort of strangely, ‘You’re twenty-five, just full and heavy with longing, all grown,’ and I thought, just fuck me, please, come inside of me, please, please, please.”
He kept listening. He wasn’t handsome; he was much older than me. How I like that.
“I want grateful needy fucking, tender amazed lovemaking, I want to have my face cupped between hands, I want to be told ‘you’re so beautiful, I’m so lucky,’ and believe it, do you understand?”
“I want him to want to shield me from his thoughts, his rough crushing needy thoughts, his desire for my hot wet pussy, his desire to fuck me roughly and to hear my noise and grab my hair and smell how different my skin smells all over my body –”
– my waxy forehead, my bitter-banana nipples –
“– and think, if you only knew. If you only knew about me imagining this, imagining and producing your otherness and in this way exactly the same as you, reflecting you back. Us, one and the same, shielding one another from our fantasy-other, but the illusion producing tautness.”
He’s old, older, his face wrinkled, and thank god. Not a boy-man like Graham, peach-furred and amazed at his new hard body, his height in comparison to his father’s kitchen cabinets, his nervous wet mouth-lick, his knowledge fresh, his heart open or a bitter bud – but a man-man, a ripe man, weathered and nipped at his edges like August leaves, like September nights. And I, no longer a fresh flower but an early-August evening like this one, heavy and fertile and wet.
“I need fucking friction, I want a man whose mind I love, a man I make wait, a man amazed. I want us to imagine one another naked many times before I finally show him my breasts, and guide his mouth over them, and tell him to pull and suck at them, and moan in his hair, in his ears.”
“I want to tell him how wet I am, wait until he’s hard as stone, put his hands on my ass, harden his grip, let him imagine, let him burn to thrust. I want to place his thumb on my clit, tell him to rub it, moan and talk, get him sitting up against a wall, ease around him, squeeze his cock all the way down, feeling myself for wetness as I go, imagining what he feels. Ask him over and over, what is it like.”
“Pressing my breasts into his mouth, moaning at it, telling him how good it is. Naked, no condom. Tell him how fertile I am. How I want his cum –”
I’m possessed by this! Swollen with wetness like a teenager again, storming with need!
“– He might gasp a little already, at the effort of holding it back, especially if I’m riding him right, squeezing my pussy and ass and thighs, rubbing and pulling and soaking him all the way over his thighs. I’ll say something like, make me pregnant. Don’t you want to? Don’t you think I’m sexy and young and kind and smart and bursting with health? And I’ve chosen you. I know it’s just our first night, but you feel how I long for you, you feel how strong this is – you feel I’ve chosen you. So do it. So come.”
And suddenly, I realize the price of my selfishness: the claustrophobic blankness waiting for me the next time I’m alone. I have ruined my ability to be alone, dissolved that special sacred part of myself that centres my me.
“You’ll hate me,” I say. “You’ll go away and it’ll happen. You’ll talk to Graham at the office, and you’ll both hate me.”
“I don’t think I will,” he says.
“You will, and I just want hear it. I don’t want you to go away and change your mind. Just tell me now.”
He looks at me. “Is that what you want?” he says.
“Please, please, please,” I say, starting to cry, not sure whether I’m crying to provide relief after that show of assertion, or if I really need to cry. But something changes, something breaks as soon as I cry, and he leans across the flimsy patio table and holds me. And he lifts me from my seat, pressing one arm under my knees and one supporting my limp sweaty back, and shoves aside garlic and elastic bands and plastic cups and puts me on the kitchen counter, kissing my wet face. I lace my hands around the back of his head, tighten them over clumps of hair, run them feather-light over his back for contrast, as far as I can, slicking off sweat. Kissing him, light and gently, needy and full of tongue, nibbling at his ears, all the while taking him in and out and grinding at knowing changing tempos, agonizingly slow, then fast and hard, letting him push me onto the floor after a while, his need taking over, his need to fuck hard and finish, to twitch and fill me and stay in, kissing. He holds me until I start crying again, and then he tolerates me crying, sudden and devastated, filled and emptied, angry and grateful and alive, yanked crying to life.