Oh, coward conscience


Most of the time I think of myself as a tolerant person -grumpy, maybe; at times even impatient with opinions not my own, but by and large, accommodating. Of late, though, I have come to recognize that with many things, tolerance is not actually acceptance; it is more often putting up with something which I would rather it not be as it seems. Tolerating it does not mean that I accept it as is, or that I have changed my mind about it.

Especially with moral issues -my tolerating your beliefs, let’s say; tolerating that you have different values than mine necessarily entails maintaining a precarious balance between wanting to maintain my own values, while awarding to the difference a sort of treaty, a right to exist alongside mine. It doesn’t necessarily entail respect, nor adjusting or abandoning my own beliefs however – just non-interference with yours; it is a self-imposed no-fly zone.

Of course, there can be a problem with that: what happens if it is violated? Ignored? Does that permit me to take retaliatory measures in kind -even if not directed at you? Toleration can be such a nuanced state, such a fragile gift.

There is an ambivalence in all of this though, isn’t there? A dilemma: whether I should value your freedom of belief, your choice of action, or reject what it is that you are doing with it. For that matter, you may also be conflicted about the toleration which you know you have received from me: how could anyone ever believe what I do? And yet, as much of a compromise as toleration often appears to be, it is often valuable as a barrier to worsening relations -to outright hostility.

Still, what do you do if you get a video call from someone you haven’t seen for a long while -in fact, someone who, until then, you wouldn’t ever have dreamed of phoning?

Of course, I could always have refused the call and waited to see if they left a message -they’re no longer on my  contact list- but would that be interpreted as rejection, or as merely vetting their call until I knew why in the world they had chosen to call -to video call- after all this time? I am, let’s face it, an older man for whom an unexpected, unprearranged video call is a rarity. Especially from a woman from whom I had parted with words, as they say. It was an old-fashioned Skype call -I must have used it at one time on my computer; I didn’t even know I had the app on my phone. Who checks these things?

True, I had once received a birthday card from her several years after we broke up, but on nowhere near the correct day -or even the correct month. It had been so off the mark, I couldn’t help but wonder if she had mixed me up with somebody else. Even in the early days of our… association, Joanna was like that, though; most communications from her, were usually impulsive, and more often than not, she would change her mind before I answered and leave a cryptic message. I used to hope it meant she had been thinking about me but was too embarrassed to admit it; I never knew what she was thinking, but maybe she didn’t, either…

“Jo?” I said as soon as I saw her face on the screen. She’d aged since I’d seen her last, but although her face had wrinkled, her eyes still sparkled into the screen as if it had only been a day or so since we’d spoken. Her smile was unmistakeable -still showing the asymmetry I had once found so attractive. Only her hair bespoke her age; we were both in our seventies now, and the hair I so remembered falling in messy curls over her shoulders, was now grey and worn short. It was still attractive on her, though; Joanna would be attractive to me at any age.

“Is that all you have to say after so many years, G?” she teased with the same little girl grin I had found so alluring before.

I tried to collect myself. “No…” I said slowly, trying to decide how to react to her. “I’m just surprised, that’s all.”

“How have you been?” she asked, as if it had only been a month or two, not years, since I had last seen her.

“Fine, Jo… And you?” Not soaring rhetoric or anything, but I was older now. Wiser, perhaps.

“G! Stop being like that.” She frowned like the old days when she couldn’t understand why I was upset with her. “You’re not still mad at me are you…?”

“No.” That sounded terse and rude, actually, so I amended it with what I hoped was a forgiving smile.

“Married?” Her eyes probed me like they always did when she was trying to see how I would react.

The question was a difficult one for me. I’d been married twice, but…

“I can see a ‘Yes, but’ on your face, G… Want to tell me about it?” she added, her eyes twinkling.

“Not really, Jo…”

But she could always read what I wasn’t willing to say, and her eyes perched here and there on my face like a little bird. “Aren’t you going to ask me, then, G?” she said with what I could see was a teasing smile on her face. She continued to study my expression for a moment, and then continued: “Whether I’m still with Sandra…?”

I have to say that caught me by surprise; Joanna was always good at that. She knew perfectly well how much I’d felt about her. How upset I’d been when she’d told me about her sexual preferences. I certainly wasn’t going to admit that I’d never found anybody remotely like her, even after all these years.

Her eyes were still on a reconnaissance mission touching first on my mouth, their wings brushing my cheeks, before finally landing like pigeons coming home to roost on the only area I could not disguise -my eyes. “So do you still hate me, G?”

A stupid question, and she knew it. I’d never hated her; I’d simply never understood the way she thought. But, the years were a balm, a soothing bandage that was finally best removed. “No I never hated you, Jo…” I had to watch my tone and guard my expression, though -even after all these years. But, in front of Jo now… I’m afraid I wasn’t very successful.

“You once said you couldn’t tolerate my feelings, my sexual choices, G, do you remember?”

I found myself nodding. I was younger then, more vulnerable; there were many things I couldn’t tolerate in those days. Long before the LGBTQ + community surfaced in my world, I had simply never been exposed to difference like that, never had any gay friends as far as I knew… I was horrified -no, hurt– that Joanna, the love of my life, preferred a woman to me. I simply did not understand that Love was a pie whose pieces could be divided. As I said, I was young then, naïve then. I wanted the entire pie, not pieces of it.

But, now that I’m old, I wish I’d at least saved her as a friend… Those last words to her, years ago, were harsh, angry, and for years, and through two short-term marriages, I’ve regretted them. And now, so many years, so many lives later, I am once again face to face with my mistake.

I could see by her expression that she knew how I was feeling. Perhaps it was why she had decided to phone after all this time. Her smile broadened to split her cheeks in two just as I remembered, and, for the briefest moment before it completely dominated her face, the dimple I’d loved reappeared. “I’ve wanted to call you so many times you know… or even just text you… but as usual, changed my mind before I actually pushed the send button. I’m kind of surprised I actually went through with it after all this time.” Unusual for her, she hesitated for a moment. “Think that means something…?”

I tried to remain neutral, afraid I’d give away too much.

But she didn’t. “Want to go out for a coffee?” she said after reading my face. “We’re older now…”

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