Rules of engagement
Dreams could be caught and shared with my twin, Susan. We were sitting on the floor, very small children. Building our dream houses from the bricks, building our dreams together. The red cubes were the most desirable and we both wanted them. I knew that Susan wanted them badly, aching for them, and I knew she should have them. She understood and took them, smiling.
A few days later the same thing happened, and this time she pushed them towards me. She thought that if she did this I would let her have them, but I could see the deceit. She was mortified. She knew what I had seen. She put her hands up in front of her face, and then ran away to her bedroom.
When we went to school, we sat together until the teacher separated us, but we were still in the same classroom. Asked a question, I would look at Susan, and somehow we knew things together. We were puzzled. Why couldn’t we understand the other children in the same way? After a time we accepted that this was how it was. The playground was not a happy place at first: the other children sensed that we were different, and shunned us. Then we learned to join in the games and not spend all of our time together. I was big for my age and learned to be a ruthless footballer.
We wondered why our parents didn’t talk to each other.
Our parents would float suppositions.
‘I suppose the post hasn’t arrived yet?’
The other parent would ignore this. We realised it was a ruse to entrap communication.
I was beginning to learn that there was something missing from our lives, but was unsure what it was. We were learning new understandings, gaining new experiences. Mainly, for me, about girls.
By the time we were fourteen boys were besieging Susan. She was very attractive, her hair golden, her eyes bright blue, her face always alive, showing her feelings. Even I, her brother, could see how she was. I hated those boys. When I was with her and there were boys, I could tell how confused she was, enjoying their attentions, but embarrassed that I could see how she felt. She would blush, crimson, not because of the boys, but because of me. I kept away, but when we were together again I could see her understanding of what these boys wanted, what she wanted and what she wanted to give them. I saw that she hesitated to do so, but I knew that one day she would. I was horrified. This was my sister.
There was a girl. Tracey. Her hair was blue, her eye shadow the same colour. Tracey was confident, and she kissed me in an alley on the way home from school. I was confused. Tracey was very experienced, and we were soon undressing each other. Tracey took me to her bed, and was tolerant of my inexperienced fumblings. Susan lost no opportunity to tell me that Tracey was a slut. I saw Tracey with other boys, and I was hurt and ashamed. I told Tracey that she was being unfair to me.
‘Poor baby,’ she said.
It took me a long time to get over Tracey, and my girls never lasted long.
When the time came Susan and I thought it best to go to different universities. I got to know girls, but it was always disappointing. I saw men and women together, saw them quarrelling, then they were not quarrelling, they were comforting each other. What were they doing? I didn’t quarrel with my girls, but they often cried. I asked them why they were crying. They all said the same thing. “Just being silly.”
Susan came to see me at my college and met my girl. I knew what she thought. Not good enough for me. She always knew what she thought, always knew what was right for me.
After my girl had gone, Susan was restless, walking round my room, looking at my books, postcards from my friends. She was hiding something from me. How had she done this? She could see that I was puzzled, and she did not trouble to hide that she knew this. I could not hide from her, and I panicked.
The cushions where my girl had been sitting still showed where she sat while I tried to extricate myself from a misunderstanding. We were always misunderstanding each other, and I became exasperated with her. The cushions resumed their shape, but the misunderstanding was always there.
In the end, Susan showed me that we would never be able to take a partner, husband or wife. A partner would see how much Susan and I meant to each other, how much we understood. A husband or wife would not be able to bear that.
We could not have a wife or husband because we had each other, but neither of us could manage without the physical relationship. I looked at the couples I knew, I saw how they comforted each other when things went wrong, how they celebrated together when things were right. I saw that there was something that men had with women, but I did not know what it was, or how to gain it. Women were puzzled, and they turned away, calling me cold, selfish. Christina told me that my face lit up when Susan came into the room.
‘It never does when you see me,’ she said.
Christina was studying psychology, and she often asked our friends to complete questionnaires for her, but she never asked me.
‘Why don’t you ask me?’ I said.
She didn’t say anything for a moment. Looking at me, her lips pursed.
‘I don’t really know,’ she said. ‘Why do you want to? I wouldn’t tell you the results.’
‘You told Peter,’ I said.
‘That’s different,’ she said. ‘Peter’s not a special friend.’
‘Am I more of a special friend than Peter?’
‘Oh, Paul, don’t,’ she said. ‘Please stop it.’
Soon after this Christina and I parted, another in a long list of failed relationships.
Susan and I realised that we had no choice. We knew we would have to live together after we left university. We could help each other.
We had relationships with others, kept them separate from our life together, but the moment always came when a partner wanted to take things further, we could not, and the relationship ended in a tangle of recriminations. I gained a reputation, and women did not want to know me. I asked a woman, Tess, to go out with me.
‘Jesus,’ she said. ‘I would need my head examining if I went out with you, the number of women you’ve screwed and left begging for mercy at the gates of the underworld.’ She did European studies at university, and her view of life had been enhanced. Then she relented, and for a time I was hopeful.
Our pillow talk was about the book she was writing on how the Prussian generals misunderstood Clausewitz.
‘What people always quote about him is that war is a continuation of politics by other means,’ she said. ‘He did write that, but his main point was that war is just a duel on a larger scale. People say that love is the same, a continuation of a social relationship by other means, but that’s not true either.’ She talked about the life of a man and woman together, unconditional surrender, flirtation as skirmishing, rules of engagement, love as an act of violence.
I hadn’t read Clausewitz, but I had been learning this. I had been fighting my battles.
I had misunderstandings with Tess all the time.
‘You never tell me what you really think about anything,’ she said.
I didn’t know what she meant, we talked about things. I told her about the films I had seen, she told me about books. It was not enough for her, and we parted. I puzzled about what it was that Tess wanted.
My work was successful, and I was offered a job in Vienna, with the International Atomic Energy Agency. I wanted to take it, but what about Susan?
Susan, as usual, was a step ahead of me.
‘We should go our separate ways,’ she said. ‘Most men and women only have a limited understanding of each other. We should be content with that.’
She was saying this to me, and I was unsure if she meant it. Then she told me she was getting married. I couldn’t imagine who it was, and she had to tell me. If they made a success of it, I didn’t want to see it. And if they weren’t successful, I didn’t want to see the failure either. Or to be part of it.
I went to a new life and met Ingrid. She captured my thoughts, not just my dreams, but my waking life. She was a teacher of linguistics at the University of Vienna. We began to know each other. I saw how striking she was, not conventionally pretty, her face a living sculpture, always telling a story. They say that love looks not with the eyes but with the mind, but I never understood that. I had looked with the mind at Susan, but I knew I couldn’t look in that way at other women. I looked at Ingrid’s face, and it was her face that first touched me. Then other things began for me. I had to learn a lesson that was hard for me, to listen to Ingrid’s words, and realise that sometimes words mislead. I saw how she looked at me and learned what those looks meant; there were clues to what the words meant from her looks. Sometimes I got it spectacularly wrong, and I despaired, but Ingrid was generous. I had to learn what it meant when she didn’t answer me, or pushed me away when I touched her.
We slept together, and I was so happy.
‘I hope we can go on seeing each other,’ I said. ‘And can we say du to each other.’
‘It’s difficult for you, isn’t it,’ she said. ‘These rules.’
We quarrelled. I had never quarrelled with a woman before; I had always walked away. But with Ingrid I learned that hurtful words could be mended, and she would not let me sulk. It’s very difficult to sulk with a woman who will ambush you with a smile.
Our life together grew, and she asked me when we were going to live together. I had been trying to pluck up courage to ask her, fearful that she would turn me down. I knew I didn’t really understand her, and worried that I had misread the signs. But I told her the truth, that I was unsure what she wanted, and I was afraid that I might lose what I had. She told me she knew that, and knew it had to be her that spoke. She understood me more than I did her, and we had a very unequal relationship. However, we began a life together, we were very cautious with each other. Best of all, we found a comfortable apartment, we had a home and, living together, sharing each other’s space, we learned each other’s ways. Not just talking to each other, telling each other about the events of our lives at work, it was doing the daily chores around the apartment for each other that strengthened our life together.
Ingrid’s parents took us out to dinner, to the Opera, to the Strauss New Year concert. I saw that they talked to each other. They asked each other questions, and answered each other, not like my parents. I told Ingrid about my parents, expecting her to laugh, but she turned away and I saw that she was crying. Then she turned to me, and we held each other.
Her mother had questioned me about my work at the Agency: nuclear energy was unacceptable, abhorrent. Ingrid tried to protect me, and apologised, telling me that her mother lacked empathy.
‘I’ve never understood what empathy is,’ I said.
Ingrid didn’t answer me, looked flustered.
Later I had been reading the Vienna newspaper. A government minister was without Einfuhlung, and I didn’t know what that was. The German-English dictionary told me it was empathy: that word again! The English dictionary told me that empathy was ‘the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his or her experiences’. I stared at the page. That was it. That was why Ingrid hadn’t answered me. The tears began to come. It just seemed so hopeless. Why was I like this?
Ingrid saw me sitting there, my head in my hands, and came and looked at the dictionaries. Then she put her arm round me.
‘You are kind, you are generous, you do not assume. And you do try. So hard. It’s heartbreaking sometimes.’
I was beginning to realise how lucky I was that I had met Ingrid.
Susan appeared unexpectedly, and Ingrid assumed she would stay with us. I wished she had asked me first.
‘How’s Peter,’ I asked.
‘That’s all over,’ Susan said. ‘It didn’t work out.’
Susan was asking me for comfort all the time. Ingrid saw straight away that there was something that Susan had with me that she did not have. I was furious with Susan. Why did she have to disturb my life? I tried to avoid her, and one day she followed me into our workroom.
‘Leave me alone,’ I shouted at her. ‘Go away and ruin your own life.’
He face was white. She packed her suitcase and went.
This was terrible. I had cut myself off from the one person who understood me more than anyone else. More than Ingrid ever would. I needed so much comfort from Ingrid.
‘Paul, what is it between you and Susan?’
We were sitting in our comfortable apartment in the Singerstrasse, and I was slowly recovering. I was looking over the rooftops towards the Stephansdom, that magnificent church that reassures the Viennese, its spire pointing out heaven. The sun was setting, and the streets were dark, but the spire was still lit by the sun. Tell the truth, it said.
‘I understand Susan in a way I don’t understand anyone else. I can tell what she is thinking. She can do the same. I don’t know how we do it.’
‘I thought it was something like that. Not a comfortable thing. I’m glad you don’t know everything I’m thinking. I want to be able to think what a bastard you are, sometimes, without you knowing that. No, not a bastard, that’s not right, but there has to be a little distance between man and woman. Not too much, just a little bit of . . .’, and there was a word that I didn’t know. When the thoughts were complicated she spoke in German, and I had to try to understand the meaning. I was expecting something like “wiggle room”, but she didn’t say the word for wiggle that I knew. Ingrid had to explain. It was “room out of the conflict”.
I realised why things were working with us. We had to try to help each other to understand, sometimes in German, sometimes in English, but when the thoughts were complicated, the words did not come easily for us in the other’s language. When understanding wasn’t immediate, there was no immediate emotional response. With the English girls I’d known, hostilities could break out even before the sentence was finished. Conversations about important things were slowed down, and we were better for it.
‘Tell me the rules,’ I said.
‘The rules about living with someone. The rules of engagement. I’ve never had to learn the rules because of Susan. With Susan, if I started something that hurt her, I could see before I’d gone very far. So I never had to learn how to be with other women; it didn’t seem possible, but when I met you I knew I had to learn. I don’t mean rules like not sleeping with another woman, I know that.’
‘Well, thank God for that,’ Ingrid said.
Ingrid was wandering around our apartment, looking very serious, and I was beginning to worry.
‘I don’t know what the rules are,’ she said. ‘Something will come up, and I shall know what I want, or don’t want, and it will be the same with you, and we shall have to tell each other. I don’t think there are rules. We shall have to find out what’s right for us. And tell each other. Telling, not keeping quiet and letting the other go on thinking such and such is OK, and resenting it.’
I remembered Tess, and I was beginning to realise what it was that she wanted.
At the Agency, a man had some flowers. He saw me looking at them.
‘They’re for my girl,’ he said. ‘We’ve been together a year.’
Another of my colleagues told me that buying flowers for a woman was a cliché, but I knew that he was unhappy; he had parted from his own girl. I went to the Platz am Hof, to the Flower Market, and bought some flowers for Ingrid. Friday evening seemed to be the time for men to buy flowers for their women. Young men like me, older men. I was reassured: I was doing something right, or at least, something that other men were doing. Red roses. If I was going in for clichés I might as well do it wholeheartedly.
Ingrid flung her arms round me and kissed me.
‘No-one has ever bought me flowers before,’ she said, ‘and I didn’t know you were the kind of man who would.’
The red building blocks. I have to learn. I have to learn.