by Guy Ware
When he says, “You’re beautiful,” he does so not because it is true – which, even allowing for the fact that beauty is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, it is not – nor because he nonetheless believes it to be true – which, with all the opportunities for comparison their life together in a major city in a media-saturated age afforded, he does not – and not because he thinks she will believe it – for she lives, after all, in the same environment as he and has the same opportunities for comparative analysis – nor even that she will believe that he believes it – surely she must, by this time, know him better than that? – but, in the end, because he wants it to be true. He wants, despite the evidence of his senses and the cold hard facts, not to feel that he has pledged himself to a life of mediocrity, a life in which he will never sail single-handed around the world, will never drink himself to death, will never paint a picture, never write a poem, a song, a string-quartet so breath-taking that it freezes time and brings tyrants, weeping, to their knees, will never hold, will never love, a beautiful woman; he does not want that to be his story. So he gets up close, he nuzzles his face into her neck, he gets so close he cannot really see her, and what he sees he cannot focus on, and he says: “You’re beautiful.”
When she says, “No I’m not,” she does so not because what he says is not true – although, even allowing for the fact that beauty is at least in part in the eye of the beholder, it is not – nor because she does not believe it to be true – although, for the reasons explained above, she does not – nor even because she believes that he believes it to be true and is in need of some correction – for she knows him better than that – but, when all is said and done, because she thinks of it as a gift, a flower, a diamond, or a pair of socks, as something that has its own meaning, beyond the words themselves. She likes to hear him say it, she wants him to say it again and she believes – with some justice – that if she says, “I know,” or even simply fails to contradict him, she will – given the available evidence and opportunities for comparative analysis – appear vain, or even slightly mad, and, even though he may not want to, he will notice this and think her vain, or slightly mad, and will not be able to say it again, even though he wants to, and a rift will open up between them. It would be small, at first, a crack no wider than a finger, no wider than a hair, but when the rains came it would fill with water, and when the cold came it would freeze and the ice would split the rock apart. Over time a vast boulder would be reduced to a small, round stone surrounded by rubble. Onion-skin weathering they called it at school, teaching her the way mountains rise and crumble, the way the hardest, most solid objects fall apart. Her friends said geography was for losers, but she knew what to guard against.
So when he says, “You’re beautiful” it is true, and they believe it; and when she says, “No I’m not,” that is true, too.
Guy Ware is a recovering civil servant. His debut collection, Witness Protection, will be published this year by Comma Press.