Everything depended, my sleeping peacefully, my being able to work, my confidence in myself, upon the only bond by which I held her, the words, extracted not always quickly from her, that she loved me.Alfred Hayes, ‘In Love’
Through our narrator, a 40-year old man living in New York in 1950s, we are taken into the slow, painful story of a relationship comes to an end. Both the narrator and the woman remain anonymously throughout the book. However, we know that she is a vulnerable person, got married too young, only 17 years old, gave birth the next year, and got a divorced when she was only 20. She leaves her daughter, Barbara, with her mother, and lives in the city, trying to find a way to survive. The man, our narrator, is an artist (although I’m not sure what kind of works), lives in a hotel, and doesn’t have a stable income.
Their relationship began casually, and it continues without a sense of purpose. Often, he regrets having started the affair but when he’s not with her, he misses her. Early in the book, the couple discussed love and happiness – and here it was clear that the woman resented our narrator’s idea of love.
And besides, love: there were so many other emotions which weren’t love at all, but which masqueraded as love, or assumed its name; didn’t she agree? And happiness: the suburban hideaway and the bedroom with the chintz curtains; wasn’t it possible to aspire to something else, wasn’t it conceivable that happiness might not the single goal?
But what was it, then, I wanted? she would ask, almost angrily, not really believing me (as, possibly, I did not believe myself), thinking that the obstinacy with which I spoke of some vague freedom, without shape, without substance, was only another of my infinite poses.
Then one night, out dancing in a club with friends, she met a rich businessman named Howard who offered her a thousand dollars to be with him. At first, she found the idea absurd, she told our narrator, mocking Howard and made fun of the situation. She dismissed the whole thing, saying she wouldn’t call, but he was suspicious that it would not end as easy as she made it sound.
And it seemed then, with the affectionate gesture, the reassuring smile that accompanied it, the pleasant walk home, that the episode was closed, the incident over; but what incident, where flattery, even of a dubious nature, is involved, is ever over for a woman?
He was right. One night, after waking up from a nightmare in which her daughter died, she decided to meet Howard for the money. For her daughter, she would do everything. So they met up, but Howard started to open up to her – told her his failure in his first marriage. And then she knew, she could not go through with her plan because now Howard became a real person with a real identity for her. She went home but they resumed their meeting – lunches, dinners, going to plays and dances. And throughout this time, our narrator believes that Howard would bore her, she would not stand a person like Howard as a partner, they came from two different worlds.
However, he sensed the ending is near and when it happened, it didn’t really surprise him.
I think that, in losing her, for it was inevitable that I should lose her, what bothered me most was that I lost her to somebody I could not feel superior to; that, secretly, the bristling idea of his money had intimidated me too.
After the abrupt separation (she broke up through a message delivered by a friend), our narrator felt the sensation he hadn’t felt before.
All I knew, really, was that she had taken away with her when she had gone something which in the past had held me together, some necessary sense of myself, something without which I seemed in danger of collapsing; and whatever it was, an indispensable vanity, an irreplaceable idea of my own invulnerability, it was gone and only she could restore it to me, or so I thought.
My cowardice, my reluctance to declare myself, my habitual irony, myself in short as the years had made me, had lost her.
There is nothing spectacular about this relationship, nothing epic or grand about the heartbreak and the separation. But it was so painful because it is so relatable, it can happen to most of us. The woman, a single mother with a five-year-old she had to support, by nature, would think about the child wellbeing first and foremost. She first went to see Howard for the money and later on decided to leave our narrator because she strived to have a better life – not only for her but also for her daughter. She might seem selfish and reckless and most readers might think she’s cruel for toying with our narrator. But let’s talk a look at our narrator, he’s 40 and he told her that love or happiness are not the most important thing. He did not give her reassurance or promises for a better life, to take her as a wife and to take care of her and her daughter. The way he lives his life is the kind of life where there’s no attachment. Even in the brink of losing her, he did not even think to offer her something to make her stay.
Here we have two people who loved each other but just did not have enough in them to sustain the relationship. They are a bit pathetic in their own way, but their story is a typical love story experienced by (probably) majority of people. I, too, was in relationships with men who did not know what they really wanted. It was not that they were intentionally cruel (but still, a**h***s), it is just they were probably confused with themselves. They might not be when they meet the right person at the right time (and to be honest, I wasn’t my best self when I was with them). But sometimes, a reason for breaking up is simply, ‘we wanted different things in life’.
This edition is published by NYRB, 2013