STRANGER THAN FICTION presents… ‘People don’t change’
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I suppose I ought to be grateful that he changed for me. After all, it doesn’t happen every day. I saw a news story about it once, some slot filing think piece about the realities of modern dating. This was before I met Tim. I remember the evenings spent in the lap of my small, smoke-hazed studio, cocooned in artificial light and sinking into the second-hand sofa, spotted by cigarette burns like chicken pocks. The program was trite, the toothy reporter trying desperately to reel something profound or vaguely interesting from the couple who were so obviously struck dumb by their own ordinariness. I remember feeling anxious all of a sudden, clutching at my own ribs like they held the answer. The couple nodded proudly as the reporter pressed them in hope of a headline. Coaxing carbon molds into diamonds. The woman nodded. Her partner sort of just stared into the camera, his furry head twitching. I had yawned, bored, listless as ever, and spent the rest of the evening getting so drunk that I forgot all about the couple who had unfolded like shiny chocolate wrappers in the blue light of my flat. I was surrounded by hope against all odds, and I was entirely oblivious to it all.
Hema told me that I should be grateful. Actually, she told me that I should count myself fucking lucky, because now I have a man who will never leave me.
“And that,” she said bitterly, passing me her cigarette as we sat, legs curled through the bars of the fire escape. “Is one stretch more than the rest of us have.”
“I suppose,” I replied, sighing in smoke and exhaling all my selfish doubt in one big, hazy cloud. The city grimaced below.
I supposed that Hema was right, and resolved to stem this flow of anxious thought before I became entirely insufferable to those around me. It had only been a few months, after all, and perhaps I was still getting used to the fact that Tim had changed so drastically. Not that I asked him to, I thought privately, harbouring my bitterness like an unleashed lampoon.
I had never asked him to change for me, but he had gone ahead and done it anyway. I knew plenty of people who had believed so forcefully and whole-heartedly that they could somehow reform their partner, that they would be the one to finally make them change. Hema, for one, poured through the morbid pages of online forums, like a heroine addict chasing the next fix, reading through the stories of those whose partners had not changed, after all. A virtual graveyard of unrequited loves, each testimony an obituary to those that had left just as they had came. People don’t change, was the name of one particular website that caught Hema’s attention, and soon she became manic and woeful, lamenting the world and all it had ever tricked her into expecting.
When Tim changed I was surprised. Not a dramatic kind of surprise, the shock you feel like electricity. No, it was more like a gentle, lulling kind of surprise; an open-mouthed ‘o’ that formed slowly, slyly. Of course, at first, I felt a certain pride, an ugly smugness. How could I not? I knew of no-one else whose partner had changed for them, and so, in a rather sinister and warm-bellied way, I felt victorious. Admittedly, I felt a burst of relief when it first happened, because it was proof, a concrete certainty, that I was loved. And not only loved, but chosen. Tim had changed for me, and thus his commitment was irrefutable. Not one of my friends, my colleagues, peers that I had known at school and whose existence I now only vaguely followed online, could say the same.
It was only after that I began to feel uneasy about the whole thing. Weeks passed and envious eyes soon dulled to wistful glances. Every time Tim and I went out together, I could feel the shift almost instantaneously. Like it was written in blood all over my winter coat. Before we wouldn’t have received a second glance from strangers on the street, but now we were magnetic. Dark-eyed women in running shorts gawked at us as we walked through the park; couples strolling hand in hand looked away, ignoring our presence and what it meant for them, only sneaking a peak privately, hoping the other did not catch their suppressed curiosity. Tim wagged along, oblivious and all too intent on chasing down a terrified squirrel to notice the unwavering eyes. I would try and keep my gaze down, shuffling through the mulch of browned leaves and trying not to show my irritation as Tim bounded alongside, carrying the bludgeoned squirrel in his mouth. I hated when he did that.
Walking, as a past time and not simply as a means to a final destination, was something that Tim and I had done occasionally before. Perhaps on a Sunday when the weather was bitter cold but bright, would we wander together side by side, walking down to the river, or through the tree-lined park. Tim liked to try and catch my hand, and I would laugh, make a game of swinging my arms in tandem, quickly, almost violently, disguising my disinterest as playfulness. I had never been one for hand-holding, but I didn’t want to hurt Tim’s feelings. At least I don’t have to worry about such trivial things. Hand holding is more complicated now.
Now the walking has become a daily occurrence, a ritual sacrifice of my time, and Tim goes crazy if I forget. He hated to be cooped up inside our small, twelfth-floor flat and he would run inane circles around the kitchen, frantic and wining, until I remembered to take him out. I had never been an outdoors person; I could easily spend days trapped in the confines of the flat, absorbed in my insular world of clay and metal, and not spare a thought for fresh air or stretching of limbs. Sometimes I would even lock myself in the spare room, my make-shift artists studio, and only when Tim started banging at the door, using his head like a mallet to signal his discontent, would I be forced to open up. This was the first of the troubles.
For one thing, it became much harder to understand one another once he had made the change. It was assumed that once someone changed for someone else, communication would be secondary, unnecessary, it was implied that there was a deeper understanding of one another. Speech, of course, was out of the question once the change was made. Instead, it became something more profound, an ingrained synergy that bound you together and relegated verbal reasoning to background noise. It was not like this for Tim and I. Instead, everything became impossible.
“What do you want?” I would scream at two o’clock in the morning, when Tim’s feeble crying became impossible to block out with a locked door and feigning sleep. “Leave me alone! I don’t understand what you want from me! Won’t you just fuck off and leave me alone!”
And Tim would simply stare up at me, saucer eyes cavernous, as wet as anything. He would whimper, and tilt his head, confused and hurt. But I was too frustrated to care. He would try to get into the bed, to settle next to me on the stark, white sheets, but my fury hardened my heart. I was cruel, and relished his wounded whimpering as I pulled the sheets roughly and forced him down onto the floor. I would hear his feet pattering, muffled in the carpet, and he would sit, staring inquisitively at me as I clamped by eyes shut and pretended to be asleep. Eventually, I would hear him leave the bedroom, trod back into the sitting room, jump up onto the couch and in five minutes the faint echoes of his snoring would fill the empty flat.
The second significant bout of trouble came in the form of our friends. Or, more specifically, Tim’s friends, who I was now expected to arrange social occasions with, seeing as Tim no longer possessed opposable thumbs or the ability to hold a polite conversation about the weather. Before he changed, Tim had been good-natured and generous with his friends. I was more reserved, prone to wilting indifference and often the cause of awful, stifled silences. Tim used to like to have big dinners, inviting a endless stream of guests and never complained when they outstayed their welcome. I, on the other hand, loathed these impositions. But it worked, with the two of us there. Tim’s light deflected the shadow that I cast. He never begrudged my sullen presence, nor did he attempt to reel me into a chain that I had no desire to be apart of. He was always so good in that way; never plying me into submission as the Stepford hostess. He let me be.
That was, until he could no longer participate in debates about social welfare or open wine bottles, and the spotlight inevitably fell to me. Because Tim’s new arrangement was expected to have no impact on the state of affairs in regards to our social lives. On the contrary, it seemed like more people than ever before were keen to stop by, to impose their reptilian curiosity onto our lives.
“You bastard,” I would think bitterly, hiding in the kitchen with the pretense of getting another glass. I would spy through the open door and hear the buzz of sophisticated conversation; the lazy milling of Tim’s favourite jazz playlist; the awkward laughter as Tim attempted to hump the coffee table.
“You bastard,” I would mutter to myself, grabbing a glass with rejuvenated venom and rejoining the party which I had reluctantly thrown as a bargaining tool to make Tim stop drinking out of the toilet. I would plaster my face with polyester politeness, the veneer of love. And when no one was looking, I would glare at Tim, who sat on the sofa holding court, to the delight of his guests and I would sip my wine and plot ways to make his life as miserable as mine. Usually hiding his chew toys worked a treat – or maybe I would switch him to cat food again, and watch as he choked on the stench of greying tinned fish.
More than the break down of all human communication; the steadily plummeting standard of dental hygiene; the infuriating infatuation with massacring squirrels – all of it paled in comparison with the constant pressure I felt to appear happy. No one could understand this nagging irritation I felt. This lingering resentment that just would not die, no matter how much I tried to suffocate it with my own rationalities. It grew into something ugly, multiplying in seismic waves and I simply could not let it go. I was the dog with a bone, while Tim carried on oblivious, shitting on the carpet even after I had yelled at him a million times not to. But nothing I said seemed to mean anything to him. He simply stared, panting and blank, saliva dribbling forlornly from his puckered mouth.
Then his nose would wrinkle, so human an action that I would jolt, taken aback by such a familiarity and waiting for the old face to return. But the real Tim never returned. Dog Tim continued gazing at me, as if waiting for the cue of dismissal so that he could get on with massacring rodents and licking his balls, or whatever other pressing matters he had on the agenda for the day. I fizzed with bottle green envy at his irresponsibility; worse, I seethed at my own complicity.
It was now spring. The ice on the pond in the park had thawed, the film receded and revealed new-born water in which the budding newts could swim, and I had reached the edge of reason. It had been a year of my life spent living with Tim as a canine. I had dealt with it all without cracking. Old anxieties has simmered and dissolved, but had gradually been usurped by loneliness, by my encroaching bitterness, and as I stomped through the sunlit park, Tim faithfully by my side, sniffing for signs of squirrel, I suddenly decided that enough was enough. I stopped. Tim wagged onward for a while, absorbed in the canopy of birds which flew like a black cluster of sesame seeds across the sky. Then, realising that I was no longer at his side, where I ought to be, he too stopped.
All of a sudden, I was gripped by the delirious sensation to flee. It would be all too easy. I could just disappear, the sparkling magician’s assistant. The crowd would ooh and aah with gleeful anticipation as I stepped with a flourish into that onyx box, to vanish forever.
I hesitated. Tim’s eyes pricked, his worm-hole eyes laden with meaning. Confusion? Curiosity? The dawning awareness of imminent abandonment? Who could say. He was, after all, a fucking dog. Reasoning was beyond his quadruped grasp, and I grinned wickedly at the absurdity of the scene. I cackled, throwing back my head, arms splaying outwards. I stood, star-fished on the ground like a crucified Christ. Tim barked sharply and I steadily gazed back down, down, down to his stocky little form. Cruelty was in reach, and I grabbed at her slimy hips. I wanted some divine reckoning. I wanted to rupture the leash that kept me subject to Tim’s every need.
So I let go.
Fibrous material twisted and tore as I let Tim fall from my eyes. I turned and ran.
I felt the eyes that followed me as I ran. I felt the mouths that flopped a gasp and shrieked incendiary curses as I sprinted across the feathered path.
“I don’t even like dogs!” I yelled gleefully as I ran, feeling the pollen surge up to meet my skin, the rush of adrenaline as I cackled and hooted.
“Fuck you, Tim!” I laughed as I ran, coughing up months of buried grievances. “Go change for someone else, you sick bastard!”
I was light as air, as quick as a free-flowing stream. Youth and life was pouring back into me as my legs pushed me on. The natural world paid me no mind, it did not begrudge me this one liberty as I leapt and bound towards who knew where. I was limitless and the sky indulged my beaming face, letting me engulf myself inside of it’s aching womb. I didn’t need anybody to change for me. I could never ask for such an undertaking, such a morbid responsibility and be expected to give back in twofold.
No, I resolved vehemently, kicking up dust as I pirouetted, scaly as a minnow and slick as an arrow. I was a new-born. Shiny and brimming with life. No way would I let any more time escape my greedy fingers. I was done feeding the whims of men, least of all one who had thought it was a good idea to go and become a dog.
Life is stranger than fiction? Clearly you haven't listened to these strange tales… STRANGER THAN FICTION is a series brought to you by some seriously freaky writers, storytellers who weave tales of foreign lands on far-away shores… or perhaps, they are even closer than you think…