Aimée hung her head and sighed. Where had it all gone wrong? She’d tried to be a cosmopolitan woman, and when that didn’t work she took refuge in sex on the beach next to a blue lagoon. That was possibly unwise and in any case ultimately unfulfilling. Manhattan was hardly any better.
Damn all men, and damn one man in particular with his easy smile and warm, gentle hands. She couldn’t forget and she refused to cry.
Though a couple of painkillers helped a little, there was one more thing she could try that might cradle her broken body and ease her suffering. She raised a shaky hand.
Lovely afternoon, perfect for a garden party don’t you think?
She nods and smiles, sips her Pimm’s. Strawberry and orange slices are fine, but cucumber doesn’t belong in a cocktail.
Jeremy made partner and our eldest goes up to Oxford this year. Time flies, doesn’t it?
She wears a new summer dress of fluttering silk with wedge heels. Stilettos and lawns don’t mix, and she won’t make that mistake again. Everything is going well. She talks, smiles, laughs when appropriate, passing among well groomed and apparently happy people.
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Her smile is a rictus grin, concealing scars left by her climb from the grim pits of hell to the favoured, sunny uplands of success. No pain, no gain so they say, but you must hide your wounds under layered politeness so no-one knows.
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A headache forms, throbbing at her temples. They might be in the same place now, but they’re not the same. All these years she thought this was the pinnacle but now, up close and personal, she’s not sure she can fake it any more.
It’s cold at the top and the air is too thin. Her breathing is rapid, shallow.
And she hates Pimm’s.
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We walked hard roads together
leaning on each other in bad times
laughing side by side in good times
we didn’t know our lines would run parallel
only for so long.
A tiny shift
a tiny space
the lines diverging
and I try
try to hold on
we are seen and we are known
we are something to each other
not easily found, I thought.
But since I set my compass to wider horizons
you dig at me with your discomfort
scratch me with your disapproval.
And I try
try to hold on
I will miss you too
your sarcasm and tears
your perspective and your fears
the way we huddled together for warmth
long into dark nights.
But with every angry jibe
the chasm grew, so
I placed you tenderly behind a shield of glass
raised for my own protection
seen, not felt
cry if you must
and don’t forget
I love you even as
you shrink in my rear view mirror.
I should be looking forward
and I try
try to hold on
time is the great separator.
Almost beyond touching distance
yet it still hurts.
I wish you well
Ethan looked around furtively, making sure he was alone. There was no sign of Dalia but his girlfriend could sneak up on him like some kind of ninja when she wanted, and he was in no mood for another fight.
“I’ll wash up,” he called out.
Her muffled reply came from the bedroom. “Thanks babe.”
There was really nowhere to hide in their rented flat. They’d agreed it was fine for a start, even though it was more like one and a half bedrooms than two. But three years later their future was still on hold until they could save enough for a deposit on a place of their own. How did people manage without a big salary or generous parents?
He never got used to the disappointment but he couldn’t give up hope either. With a sigh he tore the scratch card into tiny pieces and dropped them into the bin, before scraping the leftovers from his plate on top. Maybe next time.
Monday came much too soon. Even worse, he had another packed lunch instead of something tasty from the sandwich truck like everyone else. Bills were increasing and his next review was months away. There was no chance of Dalia getting a pay rise either. None of this made his sad ham sandwich and own brand crisps look any more appetising. He sighed.
“Lunch al desko again?”
Ethan looked up at the familiar face of his colleague. “Yeah. Sacrifices must be made for the greater good and all that.”
“I get it.” Anna looked around, then stood closer. “I’m popping out. D’you want your usual?”
“Don’t know, things are tight.” Ethan couldn’t look Anna in the eye, couldn’t explain he wanted – no, needed this and there seemed no other way to do it. “Only have five.”
Anna murmured, “No worries, I’m short this month as well. Wanna split?”
Ethan risked a glance and found Anna was smiling. She knew where he was coming from. He extended his hand and they shook solemnly.
“Fifty fifty. It’s a deal.”
At two o’clock Anna rushed up to his desk, pulling on her coat.
“I gotta go, Jason just threw up all over the childminder.” She grimaced and dropped the card on his keyboard. “Not what I need. Hope you have better luck.”
“Thanks, hope he’s okay,” he called after her. He slipped the card into his wallet and got back to work. There was no way he’d risk his manager catching him slacking. He needed that promotion.
That evening Ethan slumped on the sofa after sliding a frozen shepherd’s pie into the oven. He rolled his tense shoulders but it didn’t help. Exercise would help, but his gym membership was long gone and he loathed running, no matter how evangelical his friends were about it. He sat up then, remembering the scratch card. He’d be over the inevitable disappointment before Dalia got home. The timing was perfect.
He was still sitting when he heard her key in the door.
“Hey. You’re a bit late, everything okay?”
Dalia shrugged. “Road works, bus was late, blah blah I’m over it.” She dropped her bag on the table like always and kicked off her shoes. “Is that dinner I smell?”
“Might be a bit overdone, but anyway.”
“As long as it’s edible, I don’t mind.”
Ethan brought the plates over, but could only play with his food while Dalia cleared her plate. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Drinking on a Monday, was it that bad?” She raised one eyebrow, and Ethan tried to smile back.
“No, no, things were pretty routine, mostly. I’ll open a bottle of wine—”
“What’s got into you tonight? Something happen at work?” Dalia sat up straight, brow creased in worry.
Ethan fumbled with the corkscrew as his stomach lurched. He needed to calm down.
“Ethan, stop. I don’t want wine, talk to me.”
He put down the corkscrew and bottle and came out of the kitchen to resume his seat opposite. “Sorry.”
“Ethan?” Dalia’s eyes were wide. “Tell me.”
“I know you don’t approve, but hear me out. I wanted – it’s impossible isn’t it, trying to save up—”
“Please, just listen. We’re doing everything we can, yeah, packed lunches and buses and me cycling to work in the summer so I only play once a week, and then today this happened.” He pulled the scratch card out of his pocket and pushed it across the table with a shaky hand.
“Scratch cards? Bloody scratch cards?” She flushed and raised her voice. “You know how I feel about gambling and what it did to my family. How could you?”
“Dalia please look at it.”
She snatched it up and glanced at it. Then her mouth fell open. “Is this some kind of joke?”
Ethan came to stand behind her. He pointed at the numbers. “It’s real.”
“Four M? What’s that mean?”
He whispered in her ear. “It means we won the jackpot. Me and Anna, we share four million pounds.”
Ethan wanted to scream his good news but he managed to control his voice. “I work with her, she bought the ticket. It’s a ten pound game for the big prize so we went halves.” He smiled down at Dalia but she didn’t respond. Probably in shock – he’d felt the same when he scratched off the last panel, then stared in disbelief for forty minutes.
“Say something sweetheart. We won!”
“I – it’s unbelievable. Are you – I don’t want – are you sure, Ethan. Don’t get my hopes up—”
“I’m sure, as sure as I’ve ever been. This is it, everything we ever wanted, we can have. A house, a car, anything.”
Dalia squealed and when she stood up Ethan scooped her into his arms, laughing and kissing away her tears. “We won!”
He was elated, caught up by possibility and dreams of their future as they punched the air and danced round the living room before collapsing on the sofa.
“So am I forgiven for the scratch card?” Laughter bubbled from his chest. He felt light as air and crazy but in a good way.
“Does she know?”
“No, I wanted to tell you first of course.”
“Okay. And are you in a proper syndicate?” Dalia’s tone shifted to something more serious.
“Nothing formal, we agreed to split it. Why?”
“Well it’s your card isn’t it? So you’re the winner. You don’t have to say how much you won.”
“But I agreed. She paid half, so we split it equally.” He spoke slowly, his joy leaking away under Dalia’s stare.
“No legal agreement. She’ll never know.”
Ethan shook his head. “We agreed.”
Dalia scoffed. “Agreed? This is our future we’re talking about. Who is she to you anyway?”
Ethan stood and started to pace. He had to make Dalia understand and he couldn’t see the problem. “She’s a colleague, that’s all. Since I’m eating packed lunches I don’t get to the shops, so she buys my tickets.”
“How long?” Dalia snapped, her eyes cold.
“How long what?” Things were spinning out of control and he couldn’t keep up.
“How long have you been lying to me, buying tickets you know I don’t approve of with money we don’t have with some woman—”
“Can you hear yourself? Isn’t two million enough?”
“Not when you’re giving the other two to another woman. It’s the principle.”
Ethan backed away from Dalia where she sat rigid on the sofa.
“Principle. Right.” He picked up the winning card and placed it in his pocket. “No legal agreement, you say. Well we’ve got no legal agreement, have we? Three years watching every penny, eating cheap food, drinking cheap beer, all because I believed in a better future with you.”
Fear bloomed on Dalia’s face. “Ethan, I—”
“You know what, I’m glad we had this chat. I’m glad I figured you out.” Anger burned steady in his chest and he watched Dalia’s growing agitation with detachment. This person was a stranger.
“Just give her like half a million, anybody would be happy with that. Ethan, please.” She started towards him but he held up his hand. He looked past her tears and shocked expression, and he didn’t like what lay beneath.
“Anybody but you. I wonder what would be enough for you. I gave her my word and it’s the right thing to do for God’s sake. It’ll change her life too and she deserves that.” He slipped on his jacket and shoes.
“She shared her little win with me you know. That time I said I got a bonus from work, well it was a scratch win and I put it all in our savings account, like we agreed. Because I’m honest all the time, not just when it suits me.”
“Ethan don’t go, please I’m sorry I didn’t mean it.” Tears streamed down her face and she reached towards him but he moved past her. “Okay we’ll split it,” she wailed.
He paused at the door with his keys in hand.
“I used to think you were my better half. Show people some zeroes and you find out what they’re really made of.”
Being offended doesn’t, by itself, make me right. Garon Whited
Are you easily offended?
Do any of the following sound familiar?
How can X group hold Y opinion that’s *obviously* wrong?
How dare he look at me like that?
She hasn’t said anything but I’m already upset because people like her all hate people like me.
We live in a world where people take offence at just about anything, whether important or trivial.
Whole industries are built around us paying attention to events and people that have no direct bearing on our lives.
We’ve been convinced not only that all our opinions matter a great deal, but also that we must express them — loudly and with increasing venom.
Everyone’s shouting, but few are listening.
This means that everyone is capable of both giving and taking offence.
Giving it is framed as exercising free speech without being responsible for its effects.
Taking it means being accused of being oversensitive, unable to take a joke, a snowflake. And then there’s another chance to become offended or hurt. It’s like an endless game of tennis with pain as the score.
There are ways to navigate this minefield and survive.
Different And Equal
In essence, you are neither inferior nor superior to anyone. True self-esteem and true humility arise out of that realization. In the eyes of the ego, self-esteem and humility are contradictory. In truth, they are one and the same. Eckhart Tolle
Freedom of speech is a defining feature of democracies. This right belongs to everyone, especially those who disagree with you.
Your first thoughts on a matter reflect deeply held beliefs and prejudices which often go back to your family of origin. They’re tied to triggers and first impressions, allowing the brain to make snap judgements. These can be reinforced by schooling and media and are an automatic response that is barely examined.
Your second thoughts might agree with first thoughts, or they might differ. These are the beliefs you have formed after considering your first thoughts in the light of experience and new information. They need time and repetition to become automatic and overwrite first thoughts.
You’re free to speak, but you should wait before exercising that right.
By holding your tongue, you gain the chance to make a more considered response, one that shows a more mature personality. Suspend judgement and think, then respond.
You’re also free not to speak. It’s always an option to be silent in some circumstances.
The right to speak does not mean that others must listen. You can respectfully agree to disagree and move on. Also, use mute and block on social media to exclude some voices that routinely disturb you.
You can argue this leads to smaller echo chambers without dissenting voices, but social media lacks the nuance for reasoned debate, especially in these highly politicised times. Reduce contact with people who cause friction in your life.
More Than Stars
Exaggerated sensitiveness is an expression of the feeling of inferiority. Alfred Adler
In a world of starred reviews and comparison websites, we all want to be at least four out of five. In extremes, hearing the equivalent of one star can bring us to tears and/or aggression depending on whether the anger is directed internally or externally.
If you can’t take any criticism, take a step back. Since none of us is perfect and we know it, anyone who touches on an insecurity is immediately judged hostile. But there may be information you can use if you examine what’s being said to find a core of truth, separate from the emotional hit.
Discount personal vitriol and look at your behaviour.
Could you change how you do something?
Do you need to change, but have been resisting it?
Are you angry about being caught out?
Own your feedback, do the work, and nobody will be able to goad you in that way again.
Their Opinion Is Not Your Mirror
People get addicted to feeling offended all the time because it gives them a high; being self-righteous and morally superior feels good. Mark Manson
You are not someone’s opinion — including yours. You’re much more than that. Most times, expressed opinion reflects its holder and not its target. We see the world as we are.
So, sidestep the opinion. Ignore it. Refuse to engage in a fight to see who can offend and be offended more. Most of us have enough baggage of our own without taking on other people’s insecurities as well.
The Centre of the Universe
One who enjoys finding errors will then start creating errors to find. Criss Jami, Killosophy
You probably know someone who has a criticism for everything and is happy to share it. They may dress it up as advice or concern. Either way, they’re right and everyone else needs to be told which ways they’re wrong.
If you find yourself getting angry about a celebrity’s choices or something on TV on a regular basis, you’re spreading your circle of influence too wide. You aren’t the centre of any universe except your own, and that’s the only place you can make actual changes.
That woman’s plastic surgery or that man’s choice of partner do not require your input, and you can divert the emotional energy into your own life. Let entertainment be just that, and sidestep the negative vibe of constant gossip.
Often, you use misplaced moral outrage to avoid working on your own issues. Social media is full of virtue signalling where people are conspicuously and publicly offended to score social points but achieve nothing. Be careful where you place your attention.
Embrace Imperfection — Even Yours
Remember you don’t own people, let them decide, choose and live. There is no inferiority and superiority; it is just your crazy imagination. M.F. Moonzajer
When we recognise our own flaws in others, we reject them — and usually the person too. The inability to forgive ourselves first is the root of much sensitivity. We hand out punishment for the flaw in any way available, whether verbal attacks or online hate.
Ask yourself why this person has made their statement or action. Consider reasons that don’t involve you directly. It’s often not about you, even if it’s directed at you.
Then consider if they’re acting on their first thoughts. Give them the benefit of the doubt at first, because we all need to learn to wait for our second thoughts, the ones that more fully align with our principles and experience. Be civil because that’s the kind of person you are.
Ask yourself if you’re guilty of the fault you find in others. It may offend you because it’s close to home, whether it’s a self-indulgence you deny yourself or a desire you’ve been taught to suppress.
If they are deliberately offensive, ignore the chance to correct themselves, or escalate, then it’s time to walk away. They have more growing to do, but it’s not your job to teach them.
For example, in common with most female physicians I’ve been addressed as Nurse too many times to count. Nothing wrong with nurse, it’s just not my title. A polite correction is usually enough. But if a patient keeps using that title in a mocking tone, alluding to “real” doctors and positive discrimination repeatedly, they show that they’re hoping to offend. And make no mistake, I am irritated.
But I don’t explain myself, apologise for not being what they expect, or otherwise engage except to get the job done. Their projection of issues with perceived inferiority or authority aren’t my concern. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Never wrestle with a pig because you get dirty — and the pig likes it.”
If you accept your imperfection and that of others, paradoxically you are less fragile. Nobody can use your flaws to crack you open and goad you into helping them do it.
Let It Go
When you’re attached to something, whether through love or hate, you give it an importance it doesn’t have. Marty Rubin
Some people hold tight to their negative emotions. They cradle them and feed them with their attention until they are defined by them. They become known for their thin skin or loud outrage on certain subjects. They have missed the truth.
Emotions are something you have, not something you are.
Other people’s emotions are not your responsibility, but you should follow the golden rule: do as you would be done by. This alone will help because it’s impossible to never offend anyone.
Strengthened by self-acceptance, tempered by empathy, and equipped with rational thinking, you can step back from constantly feeling offended or overly sensitive. You can observe those feelings and let them go. And you can make real choices about your future behaviour without either denying your feelings or allowing them to dictate unthinking behaviour.
So next time you find yourself getting worked up by something, ask yourself is this about me?
If it’s not about you, let it go. You don’t have to have an opinion on everything, nor do you have to attend every fight you’re invited to.
If it is about you, do something. Work on your blind spots and weaknesses, or work to make needed change in the world around you.
The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.
George Bernard Shaw
Imagine you’re going to a party. You know the host and a couple of other guests. There will be drinks. There will be small talk.
Are you excited to meet all those new people? Or are you shrinking away in horror and already thinking about faking peritonitis to get out of it?
You’re not alone.
There are two kinds of people in this world. The first go by the Irish principle of strangers being friends they haven’t met yet. And the second live by Sartre’s principle that hell is other people. Unfortunately for the latter, they also have to socialise at least occasionally.
Good conversation is like a well-paced game of tennis, neither too fast to return serve, nor failing to return and letting the ball drop. Here are ten tips to help you raise your game, whichever camp you’re in.
1. Assume rapport
Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk. Doug Larson
If you struggle with talking to strangers, approach them as though they’re someone you know. Assume you already have a friendly connection. Drop your shoulders, breathe out, offer a smile or a brief but firm handshake as appropriate. Odds are they feel the same about you, and you’re not intimidating, are you?
2. Listen more
We have two ears and one tongue that we might listen more and talk less. Diogenes
Most people wait until the other stops speaking and then weigh in with their own observations. Active listening is a technique that aims to ensure the speaker feels heard. And since most people want to talk about themselves, they will think you’re great if you let them. Listen, acknowledge by gestures such as nodding, and then summarise what they said before responding. Try, “So what you’re saying is…”
3. Avoid interrogation
The primary use of conversation is to satisfy the impulse to talk. George Santayana
A rapid-fire series of questions isn’t just hard to respond to, but can come across as aggressive. Relax and let them answer one question at a time. Remember you’re meant to be listening, and if your questions come in a constant stream you aren’t really listening or responding.
4. Don’t choke
That’s all small talk is – a quick way to connect on a human level – which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insist. In short, it’s worth making the effort. Lynn Coady
It’s easy to mock small talk about the weather, the game, or property prices, but they’re safe and universal subjects to get things started. You might fear you have nothing to say, but there’s always something. Look at the local newspaper or trade magazine before you arrive to see what the hot topics are. If you don’t watch the current big thing on TV, have something else to talk about in books or movies.
We draw a great deal of meaning from the way speech is delivered. Practice a stance you’re comfortable with and avoid closed body language. The words are often less important than tone, speed, and clarity of speech.
Breathe evenly. Adjust your volume to match the room. Speaking too fast will lose your listener, and too slow will bore them. Keep your point in mind so that you don’t meander and lose the thread of your statement.
Some people are effortlessly funny, some are unintentionally funny, and then there’s the rest of us. Comedians are masters of timing, but even they practise their material in low stakes situations before headlining their national tour. Avoid telling jokes unless you’re confident, but laugh at them whenever possible.
6. No monologues
A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet. Truman Capote
Even if you’re the most knowledgeable person on the topic being discussed, avoid monopolising the conversation. You don’t know what other people know and you risk coming over as arrogant. Remember that conversation is a game in which both parties speak and listen. If you hold forth, you’re lecturing and people’s eyes will glaze over. We’ve all been trapped by the single subject bore. Don’t be that person.
7. No open combat
Conversation isn’t about proving a point; true conversation is about going on a journey with the people you are speaking with. Ricky Maye
Conversation is not a full-contact sport. Rein in the need to be right all the time and keep away from arguments. If someone tries to pick a fight with you, decline. Move away, feign ignorance, or change the subject. Social gatherings are rarely a good setting in which to confront people. If you think you’re superior to other people, keep it to yourself and consider you’re probably wrong.
8. Steer away from controversy
The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment. Dorothy Nevill
In a mixed gathering, there will be a range of opinions on any subject. Deeply held convictions are not going to change over the canapes, and that includes yours. One of the great joys of life is discussing deeper issues, but reserve that for the right audience. Avoid politics, religion, and any charged subject from the news.
If you’re faced with someone espousing views you’re absolutely opposed to, you have the right to move on. Don’t put up with unnecessary discomfort. Socialising is hard enough.
9. Practise emotional intelligence
Silence is one of the great arts of conversation. Cicero
Be aware of the person you’re talking with. Do they show signs of interest with open body language? Are they oriented towards you, the exit, or someone else? One of the worst sins is constantly scanning the room for the next mark. This makes the other person feel ignored and insignificant. If you see someone else you want to speak with, finish your conversation and excuse yourself politely.
Know when a conversation has ended and try to move on with grace. Pay attention to cues.
On the other hand, if you do connect with someone, ask open questions and listen. If you want them to say a bit more, try waiting combined with encouraging actions such as smiling or nodding. Often people will respond again to fill the silence. If not, offer something of your own. The best conversations happen when both people are relaxed and willing to reveal something true about themselves.
10. Know your limits
Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas…many have a horror of small talk but enjoy deep discussions. Susan Cain
Extroverts are energised by social contact, whereas introverts are drained by it. Both need other people to varying extents. If you’re introverted, plan accordingly. Watch your energy levels and leave before you’re exhausted. Accept that you’ll need a period of withdrawal to recharge and work it into your schedule as a priority.
Don’t Sweat The Small Talk
Brave the introductions and small talk, and introverts have a chance to find a kindred spirit who’s happy to chat in a quiet corner while the extroverts work the room. If you’re lucky enough to go with a more outgoing partner or friend, that might offer the perfect cover. You’ll still have to drag them away at the end though.
Treat small talk as a starter for ten rather than a trial. Life is all about making connections and that means being comfortable with social situations, whether you prefer talking or listening.
You can’t get to the deep without first going through the shallows.
(first published by Publishous on Medium 8 June 2019)
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