Split or Steal (I give that you might give): a short story by Giovanni Frazzetto

Out of Ireland summer fiction: this is the third of eight short stories in our series

Forty Foot: Liam bragged about the rebelliousness of the sea in Ireland – “my sea”, he used to call it. Photograph: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty

Forty Foot: Liam bragged about the rebelliousness of the sea in Ireland – “my sea”, he used to call it. Photograph: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty

 

When Scott landed on the pier, he was thirsty and had a strong urge to pee.

A man next to him on the ramp asked what brought him to Ireland and how long was he staying. Like a bolt of lightning, Scott replied: “Love.”

Scott was a diplomat in his 30s who worked as cultural attache for the US embassy.

The kind of love that encouraged his journey didn’t imply someone special welcoming him on the pier. For three and a half years in London, Scott had been together with Liam, a biologist his age, whose love for Scott vacillated as soon as circumstances in their relationship demanded commitment on both parts. His mandate in the UK soon to expire, Scott was to be assigned to a new location. Wherever that place would be, he invited Liam to follow him: “Science is without borders. Surely there are labs everywhere . . . like there is always an embassy,” Scott would say.

But Liam wouldn’t hear of it.

They met in water, an element they both loved. If they wanted to see each other, it was enough to show up at the public pool in the evening, after work, because Liam liked swimming on the edge of the day. He swam fast, faster than Scott. Whenever Scott began to catch up with Liam, Liam would pause on purpose at one end of the pool and start again when he saw Scott approach, so as to pass each other in the middle. Scott would try to catch him by the leg. Every 15 or 20 lengths they would rest and fantasise about swimming together in open waters. Liam bragged about the rebelliousness of the sea in Ireland – “my sea”, he used to call it. He liked to mention a place called Forty Foot, the inlet where he had learnt how to swim.

“I must take you one day.” “When?”

They never went. In fact, Liam had always avoided showing Ireland to Scott.

Scott needed facts. Liam loathed promises. Scott looked for guarantees and Liam kept his options open. Scott wanted security. Liam wanted uncertainty

When they met, Liam set Scott in motion like a clock. However, from the start the swing of the dial was a question: back and forth, yes or no, near or far, maybe, maybe not. It was like getting hold of Liam and then being left wanting more. These two men stood on opposite sides of a chasm. Scott needed facts. Liam loathed promises. Scott looked for guarantees and Liam kept his options open. Scott wanted security. Liam wanted uncertainty.

Scott was fascinated by Liam’s experiments, or what he understood of them. Every morning Liam killed a rat, made himself a cup of coffee, then trained other rats to interpret warnings of danger. He made it sound like he was a commander-in-chief, with those animals obeying his orders. They feared and then learned not to fear. Scott kind of obeyed Liam, too. “You are king,” he used to tell him.

Liam liked to let on that he was impervious to fear. He was skilled at never finding himself in situations in which his insecurities would be exposed. Scott’s successes and accomplishments were acknowledged, but quickly forgotten. Liam, on the contrary, was very sensitive to being overlooked. If he didn’t receive the regard he wanted, he would arch into a posture of disappointment, as if his whole body was saying: how can you possibly not pay me attention?

At dinner parties with Scott and his diplomat colleagues, Liam knew how to divert the conversation towards science so only he would be the real expert. Liam did not take criticism well, but was quick at finding imperfections in others, especially in Scott. If Scott improvised one of his curries, Liam would lament a missing spice. The music Scott put on during breakfast was either too soft or too loud. When Scott suggested a bike ride in the country, Liam would instead suggest a day at the pool because biking wasn’t his forte. Liam sometimes ignored Scott’s phone calls on purpose. When instead he wanted to hear from Scott, he would occasionally pretend to misdial, so Scott would get in touch upon seeing the missed call. It took Liam a year before he agreed to them being referred to as together. He conceded to holidays together, but would insist on an annual trip by himself because, he said, he needed the solitude.

In general, there was an edge in the way Liam opened up to others, an uphill slope you knew hid something on the other side but were not sure what it was, because he first invited you to climb up, then always sent you back down.

The moment Scott showed his anger and distanced himself from Liam, the degrees of vulnerability reversed. Liam would become the most docile creature

Scott regularly got tired of putting up with Liam’s erratic behaviour and occasionally protested. But the problem was that being around Liam had conditioned him to comply with his whims. Also, the moment Scott showed his anger and distanced himself from Liam, the degrees of vulnerability reversed. Liam would become the most docile creature. The perfect gift, a surprise, a night of sex and the exceptional cuddle. These short, well-timed sops were often enough for Scott, who would quickly come to compromise. They were triggers that worked like a winding key on a clock’s mechanisms and kept Scott going. Back and forth. Yes or no. Near or far. Maybe, maybe not. Whenever Liam let go for a while, it was only to gain a better hold.

Liam set the terms of their relationship and Scott let him do it. Neither could resist their connection, but they had two opposite ways of dealing with it. Scott faced it headfirst and begged for every tiny acknowledgment of it. The more Liam felt closeness between them, the more he fled it. Scott craved confirmations of affection. Liam needed Scott, too, but always at due distance.

__________

In relationships, distances are constantly redrawn, especially when there is a tacit or explicit lack of commitment. Intimacy is risk. It’s inherently filled with both opportunities and menaces. Emotional proximity bears the potential of profit and benefits, but also implies exposure to hurt or disappointment. As we experience intimacy, we negotiate a wish for closeness with anxiety about our vulnerability. One of the greatest efforts in a relationship then is to establish and maintain a delicate balance between independence and companionship. Freedom contends with responsibility, need with autonomy. It’s like a duel, a bet, a dicey gamble in which two people calculate gains and losses. Think of countries at war, a chess game, a salary negotiation or bargaining at a souk. These are all situations that involve intuition and strategic choice. From the moment we first yield to somebody to when we live with them under the same roof, being in a relationship poses dilemmas: Give or take? Us or them? Free or bound? Alone or together? Share or steal?

Do ut des, said the Romans: I give that you might give. An agreement whereby something is offered so that something may be obtained in return

Even through fierce and hostile conflicts, rivals know that for either of them to advance their interests, it’s sometimes better to co-operate than challenge. Do ut des, said the Romans: I give that you might give. An agreement whereby something is offered so that something may be obtained in return.

However, a selfish competitor may be inclined to sweep the board rather than reciprocate.

For about two years British television aired a gameshow called Golden Balls, at the end of which two contestants competed for a jackpot. This phase of the game was called Split or Steal? as these, concealed inside shiny golden balls, were the options available to each player to try to gain the windfall at stake. If both contestants chose the option of splitting, they would share the jackpot. If they both decided to steal, they would both walk away empty-handed. But if one contestant chose to split and the opponent to steal, only the stealer would keep the jackpot; the splitter would lose everything. What each player ultimately decided to do remained a secret until a final, disclosing moment. Until then, the players had a chance to negotiate. They pleaded or demanded, denied and conceded, persuaded or discouraged. They could declare or hide their true intentions. Or they could purposefully remain ambiguous to lead their opponent on.

So trust alternates with suspicion. Greed wrangles with generosity. Self-interest is measured against a scale of altruism.

Scott had no doubt he wanted to be with Liam. This offer, in all its boundlessness, felt perilous to Liam, who, despite caring for Scott, defected.

Scott shared. Liam stole. Their last conversation was over the phone: “I am sorry, Scott. I believe we do love each other, but I don’t feel ready to give everything up,” said Liam.

“How can you give us up so easily?”

__________

When two individuals start a relationship they incur debt, to each other. For Scott and Liam the jackpot was their union, built together day after day, choice upon choice. They could keep it, or let it go. Any attempt at making it work was also a test of their capacity to at once care for each other and pursue their own personal development. At stake was not only their union but also their self-worth, a currency that guides the intimacy trade and contributes to orienting the angles and distances in a relationship. Despite redressing itself over time, self-worth is minted early in life.

Whether, as children, we were looked after or neglected, sheltered or forgotten, pampered or forsaken, counts for our subsequent affective development

According to attachment theory, developed by the British psychologist John Bowlby, adult styles of affection and bonding echo one’s childhood experiences of connection with caregivers. Whether, as children, we were looked after or neglected, sheltered or forgotten, pampered or forsaken, counts for our subsequent affective development. Things are not black and white. Extended to attachment in adult romantic circumstances, the theory goes roughly as follows. People who grew up with available and responsive caregivers are more likely to develop a secure attachment style. Secure individuals grow up confident that they are worthy of love and attention and that when in need of support and proximity they can confidently rely on others. They are also comfortable with mutual dependence, thinking it is normal to depend on others or have others depend on them.

On the contrary, people who have grown up with caregivers whose availability and responsiveness were inconsistent and unreliable are more likely to be anxious about relationships. Individuals with an anxious attachment style often doubt their sense of worth, don’t find themselves lovable, and fear abandonment and rejection. As a consequence, they are clingy. They often seek validation and reassurance from their partners.

There is a third category of attachment style. In cases where caregivers are consistently absent, unobtainable and indifferent, children are likely to become avoidant. They grow up to mistrust others and feel wary of intimacy. When relationships pose risks, the avoidant tend to defensively flee and stubbornly rely on themselves. For them, attachment is equated with disappointment, so, despite striving for proximity like everyone else, the avoidant are skilful at diverting from it. They deny their vulnerability or dependence on other people, because they shun pain.

__________

Scott was anxious, Liam was avoidant. Scott was prone to compromise. Liam was more selfish. At the cost of belittling his self-worth, Scott would always seek companionship. Liam, whose sense of self-worth seemed incorruptible, regularly ignored Scott’s needs and preferred freedom. Scott believed in the comfort of intimacy. For Liam, intimacy was a bundle of chains.

Ironically, a powerful magnetism exists between anxious and avoidant people. Though at opposite ends of the scale, they feed each other’s needs

Ironically, a powerful magnetism exists between anxious and avoidant people. Though at opposite ends of the attachment scale, the two types feed each other’s needs. Deep inside, the anxious are never certain that someone may indeed love them. They believe there will always be a sizeable margin between the intimacy they crave and what a partner is actually capable of providing. An avoidant confirms these beliefs.

When the avoidant are absent and inattentive, the anxious are worried about the relationship. When the avoidant dispense a sudden hint of attention or a loving gesture, no matter how small, the anxious are sent on an exhilarating trip. The temporary joy is falsely interpreted as enduring love; hopes are restored and the anxious are reassured that their avoidant partner cares for them. The intermittent attention of the avoidant, possibly reminiscent of inconsistent attachment figures, is bizarrely nurturing for the anxious. On the other hand, the avoidant match well to anxious people because the anxious reinforce their beliefs that intimacy is an inescapable trap. The desire for independence and the dominating power of the avoidant are legitimised by the neediness and sense of inadequacy of the anxious. The avoidant impose borders to trigger a reaction of protest. They go to great lengths to avoid intimacy. Sometimes by making themselves unpleasant.

Unfailingly, Scott was energised by Liam’s sporadic signs of attachment. He was addicted to them. Liam, on the other hand, exploited Scott’s clinginess for his own self-empowerment.

__________

To Scott, Liam’s decision to break up was the announcement of a fate foretold. First he protested and tried to sway Liam. They fought, went silent for a while, and fought again. Then came Liam’s non-negotiable refusal.

Scott succumbed to sadness. He was bitten by regret and devoured by disbelief.

Scott insisted on finding words, and excuses, for what happened. Who was right? Who was wrong?

For weeks, he sought an explanation. He insisted on finding words, and excuses, for what happened. Who was right? Who was wrong? He pondered the origins of his persistent leaps of expansiveness, as well as Liam’s repeated gestures of dismissal. He found himself doing a sort of accounting of their sentiments, revisiting their emotional transactions on a ledger, annotating injuries and concessions, the blows received and those perpetrated.

During their relationship, Scott had known no moderation and had always gone for extremes: he gave either too much or nothing at all. For Scott, love was a higher call, a bid more precious than any form of calculation. This conviction elevated him. It made him generous, accommodating, oblivious to hurt. When he didn’t get enough in return, he wished he could be like Liam. He ridiculed his own compliance and wished he could trade it for some of Liam’s irreverence. He wished he could learn how to be stingy with his feelings.

Even when apart for a while, Liam’s hold was tight and Scott continued to swing from optimism to resignation about their relationship

Even when apart for a while, Liam’s hold was tight and Scott continued to swing from optimism to resignation about their relationship. Back and forth, yes or no, near or far, maybe, maybe not. Their union seemed at once plausible and yet impossible. Sure, Scott felt bitter about Liam, but he also secretly desired he would show up again, out of the blue. He longed for Liam’s skin and sex. He secretly hoped Liam would change. Then hopes would inevitably shatter and Scott would sigh back into his new condition of loneliness.

There’s a poem by WH Auden called The Lesson, which encapsulates a constant swing from triumph to loss and declares the sometimes cruel impossibility of love. The voice in the poem recalls three dreams. In each of the dreams, two lovers first seem to come close, but then one hostile circumstance or another tears down the edifice of their union. In the first, they are forced out from a house where they had found refuge from war. In the second, after a kiss, a strong wind fetches one of the lovers away. In the third, at a tournament victory ball in which the two are made winners with golden crowns, they can’t join the celebrations because the crowns they wear were too heavy to allow them to dance. Their union is always impeded and put into question. At the end, awoken, the narrator faces the lesson all three dreams maybe suggest: we can’t always get what we desire, or love is perhaps a delusion.

__________

By some irony of fate, about three months after the break-up, Scott found out that his new location was going to be Dublin.

He didn’t tell Liam and hoped he would never find out.

Liam might have been king, but the monarchy was about to be toppled, Scott thought

The turn of events slowly helped Scott meld sadness into resentment. Liam might have been king, but the monarchy was about to be toppled, he thought. He was ready to end his subjection and see Liam’s reign eclipsed. Through his anger, Scott strived to expunge Liam from his consciousness. He wanted to forget. Rather, he wanted to remember better, like Liam’s rats. He turned memories inside out. He wanted to catch sight of their most obscure corners, those that like to hide, those he had never wanted to face before. He admitted that, ignoring all warnings, he had developed a stubborn obstinacy in pursuing someone who, in truth, never offered him the tiniest fraction of what he needed. Liam’s ambiguity, a quality that in the past had intrigued Scott and later became the leitmotif of their relationship, now made him sick and tired. Scott was keen to regain himself.

For all Scott knew, Liam might have expected Scott to run back to him and insist on them getting together again, to kindle his ego. In fact, in London Liam pretended not to be affected by the separation but ground his teeth, refusing to accept that Scott had not come back to him.

But this time Scott was not willing to accommodate Liam’s whims.

On the contrary, he began to regard his move to Ireland as an emancipation. In the past, whatever decision Scott made, he made it for or because of Liam. He wanted to share it with him, hear Liam’s enthusiasm about it. Time had come for him to unchain himself and shake off the fear of being rejected; sure there will be other people worthy of his love along his new path.

A study examining the relationship between attachment styles and reaction to break-ups has revealed interesting differences between the anxious and the avoidant. Generally, despite experiencing more acute phases of emotional pain, the anxious, thanks to fruitful consideration, can turn their break-up experiences into occasions for higher personal development. On the contrary, the avoidant may experience quick emotional healing but, in the absence of self-reflection and by lingering on defensive positive self-appraisals, lose the chance to revise their mistakes and derive any constructive meaning from break-ups. They remain stuck in their pattern.

Attachment styles are not immutable. They can develop and alter during the course of our lives

Attachment styles are not immutable. They can develop and alter during the course of our lives. Anxious and avoidant individuals can aspire to more secure prospects.

We can’t square a circle. We can’t radically, or from one day to the next, reverse deep-rooted habits. However, we can identify aspects in our or our partner’s behaviour that beg for change and find ways to work on them.

__________

Scott scanned and absorbed the novelty all around the pier. The sound of people talking was the most familiar element. He could detect the song of Liam’s speech.

Late in the evening on the same day of his arrival in Dublin, Scott yielded to curiosity and went over to the famous Forty Foot. The inlet was deserted and felt like an alcove. He slowly undressed and edged on to a rock, feeling the salty winds softly rub his skin. Candidly, he sighed. He was at Forty Foot because and in spite of Liam, but also for his own sake, he believed, and on his own terms.

He plunged into the water, the dark shawl of the sea embracing him, the chills of that instant disquieting yet invigorating

Without hesitation, he plunged into the water, the dark shawl of the sea embracing him, the chills of that instant disquieting yet invigorating.

According to the principle of Archimedes, the ancient mathematician from Syracuse, when an object pierces a fluid, it is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. It’s as if the object lost some of its weight to lend force to the upthrust. For every risk taken, there are losses and returns. Often, we lose something in order to gain something greater. Scott’s resolute move into an unknown future bore all the strength of his pledge to a new life. His plunge carried all the weight of his renewed worth. Whatever he might have lost along the way, he had stirred enough waters to procure change. He had gained more clarity about who he was and the path ahead of him. Whatever loss he might incur, he felt like a winner and felt comfortable with the victory. He had stolen his own worth away from Liam’s control.

He rose back to the surface, took three or four deep, loud breaths, spat, and swam out for a hundred yards and back. He then allowed himself to float silently on his back, all limbs spread out and with eyes closed. There he waited two minutes, as if to allow for his pledge to take effect, for a spell to be realised.

“You don’t exist, we never met, you don’t exist, I will forget . . .” he repeated to himself.

As he opened his eyes again, he felt someone else’s presence near him and fantasised being wooed by a dolphin. He looked about and, as he turned to reach back for the shoreline, there was nothing else to do but face the bluff.

Split or steal?

Still and incorruptible, Liam towered over him from the rocks.

There was no longer a winner or a loser. Only a new bet, and new risks.

Before Scott could do or say anything, Liam jumped in, shouting: “I told you we would be here together one day.”

Giovanni Frazzetto: the author of Together, Closer: Stories of Intimacy in Friendship, Love and Family
Giovanni Frazzetto: the author of Together, Closer: Stories of Intimacy in Friendship, Love and Family

This is an edited version of a chapter in Giovanni Frazzetto’s Together, Closer: Stories of Intimacy in Friendship, Love and Family (Faber & Faber, 2017). References to relevant scientific studies and theories are cited therein

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