THE STARE Doris Lessing
نسخه قابل چاپشناسه : OL1926تاريخ ارسال : سه شنبه 23 بهمن 1386
“Look at him,” says Helen. “I don’t say anything, and I go on looking.”
“What does he do then?” asks Mary, gazing at Helen as she so often does, as if Helen had the secret of something or other.
“Then he gives in,” says Helen, and laughs. The laugh, as always, takes Mary captive, and this time it seems to reverberate right through her, and Helen seems to be remembering something delicious, for she sits smiling.
Helen is the Greek wife of Tom, who is English. He saw her in a taverna in Naxos, where she was waiting on him and on the other foreign tourists as if she were doing them a favor, and he fell in love and persuaded her to return to England with him. Not entirely foreign ground to her, because she has relatives in the large Greek and Cypriot community in Camden Town, and she visited them one summer. Mary is the English wife of Demetrios, and she was with a girlfriend on holiday in Ándros when the handsome waiter in the café overlooking the sea fell in love with her. He, too, has relatives in London. Now he is a waiter in a Greek restaurant called the Argonauts; and he intends to have his own restaurant soon. He will call it Dmitri’s, because Dmitri is what Mary calls him. Meanwhile they live in two rooms over the grocery owned by Helen’s Tom.
The two women spend mornings together, gossiping or shopping, but now Helen has a baby and they often go to Primrose Hill and sit on a bench with the pram pushed into some shade. There are other wives, Greek and Cypriot, and some mornings it is quite a little female community, but Helen and Mary are recognized as special friends. Some evenings the two couples make a foursome in one of the pubs, cafés, or restaurants, and on these evenings Mary often congratulates herself that she made all the right choices that brought her away from boring Croydon, to be here among people who laugh easily, or start singing, and who might end an evening with impromptu dancing, even on the tables. She might not have gone to Greece that summer, might have said no to Demetrios when her parents put pressure on.
On this day Mary goes home excited and restless and sits in front of her looking glass and examines herself. She often does this. She is plump, pretty, with ruddy cheeks, black curls, and a lot of well-placed dimples, and Dmitri calls her his little blackberry. But she has gray eyes, and he says that if it weren’t for those cool English eyes he could believe she has Greek blood. His black eyes easily smolder, or burn, or reproach. Mary leans her forearms among the little bottles of scent, the lipsticks, the eye paint, and tries out expressions. She puts a long unsmiling unblinking stare on her face and frightens herself with it. She shuts her eyes, so as to see that stare on Helen’s face, but fails, because Helen only smiles. Mary admires Helen. That is putting it mildly. Because of something Dmitri said, Mary actually went to the library and found a book called “Greek Myths for Children,” and there she read that a Helen once, thousands of years ago, was a beauty, and men started a war because of her. In Greece parents called their little girls Helen, as if the name were just Betty or Joan. Helen told Mary that Mary was the Mother of God, but Mary said she wasn’t really into religion.
And why should Mary want to try out Helen’s silent staring on Demetrios? That is the trouble. Mary is full of an uncomfortable dissatisfaction with life and with herself and this is like an accusation against her husband. She does wonder why she feels like this but has decided that she is defending herself. He is discontented because he wants to start a family, particularly now that he is seeing his friends Tom and Helen with their baby, but Mary says, “No, Dmitri, let’s wait a bit, what’s the hurry?” She really does mean to have a baby, and even soon, but she is afraid of being taken over. That’s what happens, she thinks, watching the women she sees every day. They have a baby and . . . well, I won’t be like that. And Helen isn’t, is she? She is exactly the same, as if that baby had arrived from somewhere out of the air, and she had caught it like a present someone had thrown to her. Mary is on the Pill and never forgets to take it. Dmitri says things like “One of these days I’ll throw all that junk into the rubbish.” His rough voice and hot eyes at such moments thrill Mary and remind her of earlier days.
She said to Helen, “Is Tom the same to you now?” Helen instantly understood and said, with the laugh that was like an admission that she had some secret fascinating life Mary was too much of a clod to understand, “Of course, he’s English, isn’t he? He’s just the same as when we started together.” And she examined Mary in her frank way that Mary at first thought was “tactless,” and said, “You don’t understand something. Greek men are romantic when they are courting. They kiss you a lot and they make compliments. But when you are married you are just his wife.”
The summer Mary went to Ándros, Demetrios courted her with flowers and scented soaps and chocolates, and he said she was beautiful and he had never known anything like her. He kissed her in the moonlight, and one night he even covered her hands with kisses and hot tears, too. Mary knew this was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her or probably would happen. It made her uneasy that this was so. What was Demetrios, then? Who did he think he was—was her secret feeling. And she watched him while he was asleep, thinking, But why? But she often remembered, too, how he had been then, that summer, three years ago. Now he was as sensible as any Englishman. Like Tom, about whom Helen sighed, though smiling, saying it was lucky Tom liked his fun in bed, because otherwise she’d think he didn’t love her.
A likely story, thinks Mary, who wonders why Helen said yes to Tom. He was all right, not bad-looking. “He makes me laugh,” says Helen. But surely she must sometimes find him boring?
But did Dmitri still love Mary?
That night, when he rolled toward her in bed, she said, “No, I don’t feel like it,” trying to make herself sound like Helen when she was teasing and taunting, but she knew she had not succeeded. She had never said no before: she liked her fun in bed, too. He was as surprised as if she had said she wanted a divorce. “What’s wrong with you?” he demanded. What he should have asked was “But what have I done?” though she would not have known what to reply if he had. She turned her back on him, knowing this hurt her as much as it did him: she could feel his baffled, hurt glare on her shoulders. He muttered something she was glad she had not heard. He lay awake and she did, too, but pretended to be asleep.
Next morning he kept sighing and giving her hard accusing looks. It happened that it was Saturday, and that night the two couples went to drink in the garden of a pub, and then had dinner at the restaurant where Dmitri was a waiter, but it was his night off. The women sometimes worked there as waitresses when they needed a bit extra for the housekeeping. Everyone knew them, people waved or called greetings or came to admire the baby asleep in the pram. Mary saw how Helen hung on Tom’s arm and knew they were going to make love the minute they got home. When Demetrios and Mary got home he said to her, “I hope you aren’t going to not feel like it tonight.” He was clumsy in his sarcasm, and that made it easy for her to say, “I might or I might not,” but in bed he at once attacked her, as she tried to complain to herself, but it was no good saying she didn’t feel like it when it was evident to both of them that she did. “When are you going to give me a kid?” he said afterward, and he was doing something she always found frightening and exciting: he was sliding her wedding ring around and around her finger, as if he were thinking of throwing it away. “I’ll see,” she said, knowing she had never provoked him like this before. Then she found herself being raped. There was no other word for it. She was all slippery from the recent sex, so he could not know she was thrilled and quite dissolved and could easily have said then and there, “Yes, all right about the baby,” if he had not been groaning into her ear, “You bitch, I want a baby. Now, not in ten years.”
Next morning she did not say one word at breakfast. He didn’t notice. He was taking his time with the toast and the jam and the coffee: he didn’t have to be at the restaurant until eleven. This was the best part of their day, the hours before he went to work. They talked or didn’t talk, and read the paper, and sometimes went back to bed. She knew that when the baby came their mornings would never be like this again. She had told him so, and he had said, “And so what.” This made her feel he didn’t love her. It was not until the end of this breakfast that he realized her silence was meant, and he lifted his head and looked at her, long and hard, and she looked coldly back. And then she went on with it, using the unblinking stare she had practiced before the mirror. “What the hell?” he said. “What . . . ?” She said nothing but sat in front of him and stared. It was driving him wild, she could see, and secretly she was excited, she was thrilled, and she answered not one word while he went on exclaiming and accusing and asking what the hell she thought she was doing, and then he shouted “Bitch!” at her and went off to work.
Mary sat with Helen outside a pub, in the sun, with the baby in the pram between them, and Mary thought, I don’t really mind a baby, I suppose. I’ll leave off the Pill and see what happens. But I’m not going to tell Dmitri, not yet. And I’m not going to give in to the baby.
“How long do you keep it up?” she asked, trying to sound casual, but Helen at once understood and said, “Oh, it’s not much—I just like to see how long I can keep it up. Because I want to give in and I don’t.”
Why did Helen find everything so easy? She was talking as if it all were nothing, just a joke. Why don’t I find things easy? Mary was thinking as she sat silent and dismal, looking at Helen’s long thin brown legs and her brown thin arms, and the way the black dress was on her, and her black shining hair loose on her shoulders. That dress would look like a bunch on me. . . . The baby began grizzling, and Helen picked it up, no trouble at all, hardly looking, and she sang some Greek nursery song in her deep sexy voice. The baby stopped crying. The soft little head was inches away from Mary, and the sweet intimate baby smell made her want to cry. Oh, no, she thought, oh, no—but Helen casually handed her the cuddlesome bundle and said, “I’m going to the toilet,” and off she strode, with the black linen swinging around her.
Mary thought, I suppose Dmitri will sing our baby Greek songs. When Demetrios and Helen spoke together in Greek Mary listened and she wasn’t thinking of the kebabs and taramasalata and the retsina and all that stuff they had right here in London but of the sun on the dark-blue sea and the hot rocks and the olive trees and the singing. Often when the two Greeks talked together Tom and Mary—neither knew more than a few words of Greek—exchanged smiles acknowledging that these people they had married were sometimes strangers to them.
Mary did not speak to Demetrios that night when he came in, as usual, late, well after midnight, but she sat up in bed and stared at him while he stumbled around the room and swore and discarded his clothes anyhow and then flung himself on the bed with his back to her. She longed to put her arms around him from behind and do what he loved her to, which was nibble his ear and then kiss and bite his neck. The first time she did this it had been like jumping over a fence into the dark because she was taking the initiative, which she had not done—she liked being the one who said yes—and there was at once a storm of sex. But there wasn’t always: I’m not going to let you take me for granted, said Dmitri, teasing her—she thought, but then saw this was his delicacy again, for he was sensitive, surprising her, when you’d think he was just a big rough noisy man. He knew she would be shy, afraid he would think she was asking for sex instead of sometimes just a cuddle, and that was why he kept her guessing. She had seen Helen giving Tom little touches and strokes that put a look of wonder and astonishment on his face, and she had tried them out on Dmitri—without Helen she would never have thought of doing anything like that. Now she lay beside Dmitri, rigid, and she was thinking that one night it was easy to put one’s arms around one’s husband and then be happy till morning, and the next night it was impossible to put a hand to touch him, let alone kisses and nibbles.
She kept the silence going all night, for she did not sleep, and next morning through breakfast. And now she was frightened. She sat staring at him while he averted his eyes but sometimes glanced at her in wonderment, in anger, and in fear. But as well as being scared she was dissatisfied, and her dissatisfaction with everything and with him, like an accusation of him, was stronger every minute, because what she was doing was feeding it. He should be well, he should be kissing her hands and covering them with tears and saying he was sorry.
That night she was careful to seem asleep when he came in from the restaurant. Perhaps he will kiss me, she thought: he often did, when she was asleep. She would put up her arms and pull him down into her. But he didn’t kiss her.
Next morning at breakfast she could see herself sitting there, with her staring face like a radar dish following him around the room. He was not looking at her, though. She thought, He’s stupid. Just because I haven’t got a smile on my face and I’m not speaking—but I’m just the same inside, aren’t I? Meanwhile he was stumbling about and knocking into things. He looked as if she had put a curse on him. He left his coffee and banged straight out. Next morning she woke before he did, and was about to slide quietly out of bed so as not to have to “put on the performance,” which was how she was now thinking of it, but he sat straight up in bed and she adjusted her face so that she was staring at him over the edge of the duvet. He let out a shout, as if he had had a nightmare, and then he began to sob, “You’re a cruel woman, Mary. You’re a cruel hard woman.” That night he sighed in his sleep and groaned and shouted out what sounded like imprecations in Greek. It frightened her. He could kill me, she thought, and, no, she wasn’t anywhere near being thrilled but decided, I’ll stop it. It’s enough. But she couldn’t stop. An implacable accusing stare had fastened itself on her face. And she thought, But I started it all for a good reason, didn’t I?
And the days passed. On an evening when the four were together Mary hoped the others would not notice that she was ignoring Demetrios and that he was doing anything to avoid looking at her. But Helen noticed, all right.
Next day Mary asked Helen, “How long do you go on with it?”
“I’ve never kept it up longer than a day. Well, I love him, don’t I?” She sounded a bit evasive.
It was now three weeks since Mary had begun the treatment. She was in a frenzy of panic, and did not go out at all but sat weeping, and then sat silent, staring, not at Dmitri, for he was not there, but at the wall. She did not know what was happening, but it was terrible. Had she lost her husband? He was not coming in till very late, because he had been drinking. When he did he stumbled around the room swearing at her—in Greek. Then one night he didn’t come home.
“What’s going on with you and Dmitri?” asks Tom, meeting Mary in the street. “Are you having a quarrel?”
“Nothing like that,” Mary says smiling, while she feels her life is falling apart.
In bed that night she put her arms around her drunk husband, from behind, and nuzzled up and said, “Come on, Dmitri, don’t sulk.” “Go to hell!” he shouted, and blubbered noisily, in a way that made her hate him, and then he suddenly fell asleep. In the morning she was up and out of bed and laid the breakfast, and when he came out of the bathroom, already putting on his jacket to go out, she held him at the door and said, “I’ve got a nice breakfast for you.”
At which he laughed, but it was like a bark, and he shook his finger at her in clumsy sarcasm and said, “You’re talking. You don’t use words to me, so shut up, I don’t want to hear you.” He left.
Mary went to where Helen was with the baby. She was among a group of wives and babies. They were all laughing and talking and joggling their babies about. Was that really Helen? Was she ill or something? She looked thin, and even ugly, with her lumpy nursing breasts. And as she stood looking at Helen, thinking, But that’s not what Helen is like, she thought that these days Dmitri seemed to her a fat clumsy man with a red swollen drinker’s face. Mary went to join the group and saw that Helen was not moving up on the bench to make room for her. Mary pushed her way in, and her determination was such that one by one the women left and went off with their prams and pushchairs.
Now Mary told Helen the whole story, and she knew she sounded like a madwoman. Helen was pushing the pram back and forth. She pushed it one way, jiggled it up and down, pulled it back toward her, jiggled it in a long thoughtful pause, and pushed it forward again, and to Mary it seemed that the pram had become part of the listening and judging.
“You’ve kept it up for three weeks?” Helen said at last, with a carefulness that told Mary she was controlling an extreme reaction. Her face was severe. She might never have been Mary’s best friend. “Three weeks,” stated Helen. “No wonder he’s sick.”
“Is he sick?”
“Can’t you see for yourself?” said this new Helen, with her cold bleak face, not beautiful at all. They were sitting on an ugly wooden bench outside a pub that needed painting, and wasn’t all that attractive, although there were little bay trees on either side of the door. The trees needed watering and they were dusty.
“Tom said that Demetrios was too drunk to work yesterday. He’ll lose his job if he’s not careful.”
The words “But you gave me the idea” could not get themselves off Mary’s tongue. She was asking herself—and she was in the grip of the panic that seemed to be her permanent condition—why did I take what she said the way I did?
“You’d better try and make it up to him,” pronounced Helen, and she got up from the bench and went off with her baby, not even smiling at Mary or saying, “See you tomorrow.”
I’ve lost Helen, too, thought Mary. She went to sit outside the restaurant where Dmitri worked. He had an hour’s break in the afternoon. When he came out she ran to him and put her hand on his arm and said, “Dmitri, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Dmitri.” She was crying and he was turning away from her and saying, “So you’re sorry, and that’s all you have to say. What was all that for? I wanted a kid, that’s all. You’re a bad woman, Mary.” She could see he felt horror as he looked at her, quickly, for he was afraid that cold angry stare might appear again on her face. He tried to pull his arm away, but she held tight and said, “Please please please, please, Dmitri.” He stood there half turned away, with nervous side glances at her, but avoiding her eyes, which afflicted him. She thinks, He will hate me forever, but pleads, “Please, Dmitri, come home now.” The two stood close on the pavement, and people going past moved well out of their way, and she was clinging to him for dear life, for that was how it felt to her, because everything was at stake. She was weeping loudly, and he was hot and red and miserable.
Home was only a few minutes away. He went stumbling beside her and she kept tight hold of him, for he might run off and she would never see him again.
At home she tried to pull him into the bedroom, but he sat at the table with his head in his hands. “What are you thinking now?” he asked. “We’ll have sex and then that’s the end of it?”
“I’ve stopped taking the Pill, Dmitri.”
“So you’ve stopped the Pill.”
“Come to bed, please, Dmitri.”
“What a way to make a baby.”
She grabbed his hands to pull him up, and she was thinking, But when have I ever had to talk him into bed before? He let himself be pulled, and stumbled with her into bed. He was weeping, with rough ugly painful sobs. She had broken him. She was not feeling anything like her little thrill of victory or the pleasant fear of their sexual games. Inside herself she was babbling, “He’ll get over it, he’ll forget, and we’ll go back to how we were.” For now it seemed to her that how they had been was wonderful, and she could not understand why she had thrown it away.
Meanwhile it certainly was not a question of making love, or even of sex, because she was holding in her hand a small limp shrinking piece of flesh, and nothing like this had ever happened before.
“Don’t you do it again,” he was saying, in his new rough miserable voice. “Don’t you do it, I’m telling you. If you do I’ll kill you. I’ll just walk out and never come home, so don’t you do it.”
He lay down on the bed, but on his back, not turned away. She insinuated herself inside his arm, lying as close as she could. “Oh, Dmitri, I’m so sorry.” She was weeping but she felt better, because she had decided to hear what he had said as a kind of forgiveness. She was telling herself, “We’ll forget all this in a day or two and everything will be as it was.”
July 7, 1997
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