The Issue Is Trust: A Christina Carson Short Story
June 18, 2017
He lived on an edge, not by choice but by the happenstance of war.
“What do you know about trust, Libby? What…what’s it about? Does it mean you trust someone to do something or trust them not to do something? When you say, ‘I trust you,’ what does that mean?” Eve was at Libby’s place having eaten supper there, but more than the meal, she was there because of what twenty years of steadfast friendship offered at a moment like this. They’d sheltered each other through the tempest of their teens and into adulthood, but this recent devastation, Eve’s marriage crumbling without forewarning, stunned them both. It had rocked Eve’s world such that the aftershocks had not yet permitted her to regain her balance.
“I can’t answer for the human race, Eve.”
“I’m not asking you to. I just want to know what it means when you say ‘I trust you.’”
“Libby replied. “What does that matter? It’s Tommy who’s the issue here. He’s the one you need to ask.”
“I’ll get to that, but right now I’m taking a poll. What does it mean when you say to me, for example, I trust you?”
The two women were good for each other. Libby was the methodical one, placid and orderly. While the high-energy Eve streaked through ideas like a mouse in a maze. But it was Eve who would persist, doggedly plucking out contradictions like rotten grapes from a fruit bowl.
Libby sat pondering the question, noting it wasn’t as straightforward as she had initially thought. “Well, I guess ‘I trust you’ starts with who I know you as—your beliefs and the usual responses they create—and includes my expectation they’ll remain constant.”
With Libby’s reply, Eve blinked her eyes in dramatic display as if shocked by Libby’s answer.
“Bloody hell, you mean no room for error, no space for alteration. Trust means to you I can’t disappoint you at any turn?” She often played devil’s advocate to prod people into full disclosure. She probably should have been a lawyer rather than heading up an environmental agency. But this evening, she was adrift from either port. Marriage had never been her aim. The verve and command she exuded in her work masked her underlying misgivings about human nature. It made marriage look like an enormous risk. But the night she met Tommy, something moved in her that she’d never felt before, something she was unwilling to deny.
“Well, I don’t know.” Libby rejoined. “You asked me spur-of-the-moment here, but for sure there is something in the notion of trust that means I can count on you.”
“Count on me how?” Eve shot back.
Momentarily caught in Eve’s urgency, Libby took a breath to calm herself. Each of her next words came out deliberate yet soft. “Give me a break, gal. I’d have to think about that for at least a few seconds.”
Eve, her desperation rising, would not give it a break. Her mind demanded she make sense of this inconceivable situation. “So maybe you would have to define the choices or behaviors where you expect constancy from me. Then you could be certain of the trust you place in me.”
“I think everyone already has one of those lists, Eve, but the problem is we never put it on the table. We make the foolish assumption that my list would be similar to yours.”
“So you’re saying, Lib, that Tommy has a list, and I have a list and obviously ours don’t jive in some rather critical areas.”
“That’s the problem I’d say, and it’s not just the areas, but also their significance to us. What you think is crucial appears to be must less significant to him.”
Eve pushed back and leaned against the chesterfield. She stared into space; her exterior still, her insides frenzied.
She then leaned forward. “So when I caught him in the act of sleeping, in our bed I might add, with that girl he met at Frank’s, that implies he and I have a different definition for trust in the realm of sexual loyalty? How ‘bout decency? How ‘bout sensitivity? How bout’ safety? How bout…” Her faced twisted in anguish.
“How ‘bout hold it, Eve.” Libby spoke gently, attempting to keep Eve steady. “Don’t head down that road again. It’s perdition’s highway.”
Eve retreated and sat staring at the floor, only to start again full force. “Then there’s this, Libby, he said not to be upset because that episode didn’t mean anything to him. Do men ever listen to what they say? Didn’t mean anything? So it’s possible then to have great intimacy with another and have it mean, nothing. Could that not mean that many a night we had sex and it meant nothing to him? Begs the question doesn’t it?”
They sat silent, both women entangled in Eve’s barrage of questions. She’d often dig into a topic with the fierce intent of a burrowing terrier, and Libby, used to it, could hold her own. But Libby’s heart wasn’t in it tonight. This conversation was too painful to encourage Eve’s persistence by responding.
The ensuing silence filled the room. Eve was a wreck; her bearings lost. Reason had always been her ally, but for the life of her she could not make sense of what had happened. Her husband, her marriage partner of five years, was now an unknown, his sudden choice of behavior completely out of step with everything she thought he was and valued. She was convinced answers would rescue her, if she could just stop drifting into the emotional bedlam that sight set off – opening their bedroom door on the two of them.
Unable to tear that scene from her thoughts, she was left with this continuous loop videoing before her mind’s eye, him lying there with whomever she was, lying in their bed, laughing and touching, aglow with this ‘meaningless’ encounter. Logic proclaimed a simple verdict: Tommy was a thankless cheat. Only that indictment didn’t do anything toward addressing the pain of betrayal. It just left her out there in emotional limbo.
She tried to conceive of what mattered so much about trust that having it violated left you like some mortally wounded creature, but nothing came to her. She threw her hands out to her sides as if breaking an imagined fall. They hit the sofa cushions where she sat, her fingers spreading out like cat claws, holding her rigid; barely breathing. Though she remained upright, in her mind she plummeted into oh-so-sweet memories of the past. Lib, unaware of what was happening to Eve, watched her friend’s face soften as if it were melting, while her eyes remained bereft.
“Eve, I’d like you to meet Tommy an old school chum.” The evening Eve thought was going to be another boring social commitment she’d dutifully fulfill took a sudden turn. Who can explain falling in love? Does it even happen anymore? That inexplicable glimpse into the elemental splendor of another. For unmeasured seconds it lifts two people beyond the predictable banality of life, easing them into sensibilities akin to divine awakening, for that is love’s province. On that summer’s evening, star-struck as they were; they sat sharing tidbits from their lives like hors d’oeuvres before a feast. Later he escorted her home, kissed her at her door and said he’d call in the morning. And so he did.
Her mind then skipped from one scintillating memory to the next. How gentle they were with each other, how willing to find out what pleased one another. They were both playful and intense, their passion sparking like flint on steel. Had anyone asked if she was satisfied, deeply satisfied even, she’d have said yes without hesitation. Five years of glory, that’s how she saw it. But did he feel that way too? She never saw reason to ask.
Libby got up and came to sit beside her. She draped her arm around Eve’s shoulder and spoke softly. “I am so sorry, Eve. I never saw it coming either. I thought you two owned the moon and stars. And worse, I don’t have a ghost of an idea how to help you take your pain away. You know me, ours is the only relationship I’ve ever ventured into. I don’t think my dog or tropical fish count. Wanting to feel not so useless, she searched her jeans pockets for a tissue. Pulling one from a back pocket, she used it to blot the tears which now rolled down Eve’s cheeks in rivulets.
Not a sound came from Eve. It was eerie, this level of grief, this depth of turmoil. Lib didn’t know this Eve and it rattled her. Each sat in her own snarl of confusion, isolated in silence. Libby broke first. “What can I do to help? Ask of me anything.”
Eve shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Lib, then ask me again.” Libby hugged her. Eve rose, waved backwards over her shoulder and padded out.
It was late, but home didn’t call to her. Instead she roamed the streets of the city’s West Side, window shopping, hoping for anything to distract her, to hold her anguish at bay if only for moments. As she meandered aimlessly, she unwittingly wandered into the quaint streets of an artsy neighborhood with its funky shops and her favorite all-night bakery.
The light outside its door drew her moth-like. Why hadn’t she thought of Rudy, the night baker? All those wee-hour conversations they’d had over the years. Born in Holland, he lived through WW II before immigrating to Canada and moving to Vancouver. Both of them were night hawks, but it wasn’t that or his maturity that attracted her. Rather it was his perspective, one none of her other friends had. He lived on an edge, not by choice but by the happenstance of war. You could feel it. Yet he always seemed to keep his balance.
The shop’s soft lighting from midnight to early morning created a comforting atmosphere, almost cozy. She walked to the counter that ran in front of the muffin, scone and pastry cases. Sitting on one of the stools made it easy to hold a private conversion with Rudy while allowing him still to attend to his work. When she came through the door, he focused on her reddened eyes and pained expression. He had a cup of coffee in front of her before she even sat down and with no one there to notice, he laced it with a bit of brandy.
“I look that bad, eh?”
“I’ve seen you better.” He smiled briefly.
He finished setting the oven for his next batch of scones. Then he picked up his coffee cup and came round the counter, sitting on the stool next to hers. He waited.
Eve sat with both hands clutching the coffee mug while she stared into it. “This started with finding my Tommy in bed with another woman, in our bed actually, and then him saying it meant nothing. That’s when I began to let myself see that what we expected from each other, required of each other, differed. Then up popped that puzzling word, trust, and the complexities it spawned once again.” She lifted her head and turned toward Rudy. “I thought I had moved beyond that fear, Rudy. Yet this time it feels more monstrous. I’m afraid to move for fear of slipping in over my head.”
“What do you really want to know?” Rudy got right to the point. His life had long ago denied him dithering, but in deference to her obvious distress, he kept the usual abruptness out of his voice.
“It’s this trust thing. What’s real about it? Or is it something we’ve merely deluded ourselves with, a succor for our fears, a hedge against the dark night of the soul, but like a tiny pocket light incapable of brightening the spot where it’s most needed? Can we really trust another, or is it just some dreamed up fantasy we wish were true?”
Rudy lit a cigarette. He liked the night shift because he could sneak a smoke. He inhaled deeply, held it as he pondered, and then slowly blew it out of his mouth in pale-blue smoke rings. He sighed deeply and began in a soft voice. Let me tell you a story. It was winter,1944. My young friends and I, Resistance fighters in France, now huddled in our barracks at Buchenwald on the slopes of Etter Mountain, the thin rags we had left for clothing no match for the cold. Our former muscled young bodies were now stretched taut across bone.
Two years earlier, when we were caught and imprisoned in France, I found out who in our group had turned us in and identified me as the cell leader. The SS hauled me in for interrogation, beat me to a pulp and blinded me in one eye.” He pointed to the obvious suture scars. Eve had never had the nerve to ask how that happened. “During the trip to Buchenwald, the group, rather than kill the traitor, shunned him. The isolation was far worse than if we beat him. At the camp, he spent a week balled up in a dark corner of our barracks eating and drinking nothing. I suspect he was trying to kill himself, but ironically, it didn’t work. So he got up and walked out into the cold, not to return. We’d catch sight of him every now and then. He began to befriend other despairing folk in the camp. Sometimes he had a tiny bit of food he could share; sometimes it was merely the presence of a gentle, accepting heart that he offered.
“The trust we in the Resistance expected–that we would never give each other up–he’d breeched. I called him a traitor. But was he? Who among us knew what we would do when confronted with the worst? So was the trust we thought we shared valid? Maybe it was each of our best intentions, something we each wanted to believe we could do; only, apparently not everyone could. I found out later he betrayed us to try to save his mother.”
Rudy snubbed out his cigarette and returned behind the counter. She watched him pull fresh scones from the oven, the room now rich with the scent of cinnamon.
“What bothers you most?” Rudy asked as he removed the scones from the pan.
“I guess that he is not who I thought he was. He never showed any signs of someone who would make that choice.”
“Did you ever discuss with him his thoughts on fidelity?
“No, why would I have?”
“Perhaps because it is obviously very important to you? You know you never would have done what Tommy did? But what kept you from knowing that about him? If there is one truth my experience taught me, it is that we rarely know someone as well as we imagine; especially if we don’t pointedly take the time to. It wasn’t so much that your trust was violated but that your assumptions were proven false. Don’t misunderstand; no one would call what Tommy did, honorable. Nor was the traitor’s behavior so. But, had I taken time to know my fellow Resistance members better rather than let my youthful bravado serve in place of the facts, I might still have both eyes, my real career as a machinist, and not have to live with some of the worst memories mankind has yet created – the Nazi death camps. But I did what you did. I assumed we all saw the world similarly. It’s so much easier that way. We want it to be simple, but it can’t be simple, if we are unwilling to do what simplicity requires. My traitor betrayed us, and yet later, he then gave himself to befriending everyone he could before the end. Your loving husband, after giving you five glorious years, betrayed you. Yet, was that one horrible mistake in five years or five years of a lie and the inevitable consequence? If the way you demand to see this is based on choices that black or white, the complications of life come out of the cracks like fleas looking for a new host. The seeming simple route drowns us in complexity.”
“But even so…” Eve stopped. She lost her train of thought. Too much of her mind was still railing at what Rudy was saying.
Rudy filled in. “Why should you have to pay so dearly for your naiveté, your inexperience? That’s what you want to ask isn’t it? Then let me ask you this first. Do you honestly believe that your hurt and pain would disappear if you could just label him a no-good cad and walk away?
“Well, what did you do about the traitor? How did you live with the devastation his failings caused you?
“With one less eye for starters.” Rudy chuckled at the irony. Eve sat stony. He continued more seriously. “The traitor didn’t live to leave Buchenwald with us, but several people did who wouldn’t have otherwise if it weren’t for him. In fact, a sixteen year old boy he took under his wing and gave most all his food to called him an Angel. What’s true, what’s false? Who’s right, who’s wrong?
By now the soft light of morning crept tentatively across the room toward them. A new day had begun. The bell over the door tinkled brightly as the first customer came to breakfast on Rudy’s celebrated scones. Rudy walked a scone and coffee over to him, talked for a moment, then returned to the counter and sat with Eve once more.
“My past showed me that life is a cycle endlessly repeating. Some cycles get very intense– a heinous war, a devastating marriage breakup. Most are just mundane repetitions of yesterday. The real irony…regardless of the cycle’s content…we engage predictably: we see it from the same perspective as every other time and react as usual. If we don’t break this cycle, we remain not captives to other people’s behavior but captives to our own.” Rudy stopped for a moment and stared blankly at the wall.
With a slight shake of his head, he broke himself free from some haunting memory. He gaze continued straight ahead; his voice dropped almost to a whisper. “I came so close to never realizing that—to never freeing myself from my same old interpretations of all those past events. At what looked like my last obliterating drunk, my revolver lying in front of me on the table, I came to understand how to hold all that had happened to me in a way that would stop destroying me. It is not the past we can change or accommodate. The present is all we have, and in that moment one question came to me, the answer to which was my salvation.
Eve sat silent. The vortex in her mind driven by all the swirling arguments, rants and angry judgments was losing its momentum. As that cone of thoughts began to flatten out, a tremor ran through her. “You’re not suggesting I accept what Tommy did?”
“I am saying that faulting him or judging him is not the approach to ending your suffering. Instead, it keeps you stuck in your predictable ways. Ones that have you thinking the answer lies in determining who’s right or wrong. Instead, I suggest you invite the question that will give you the insight which frees you from judgment and focuses on deliverance.”
Rudy got down from his stool to go back to work, but stopped behind Eve. He spoke, his voice gravelly and low. Staring at the floor, he said, “One thing more. Near the end of our imprisonment, we weren’t being watched so much. It was possible to get outside at night for a moment alone. This particular night, as I passed the space between our barracks and the one adjacent, I noticed someone balled up against the wall. It was very cold. As I gently pulled what remained of a coat from around the man’s face, there was the traitor. It was like he’d come home. He was so thin; almost nothing was left of him. I picked him up, carried him inside, put him in my bed, climbed in after him and wrapped us in the scrap of blanket I had left. I willed every degree of heat I had to him and held him to me all night. Just before morning, he began to shiver as a person does when they finally feel enough warmth to respond. He was too weak to talk, but one soft moan said it all. When I carried his body later that morning to the cart that came through each day to pick up the dead, I gently laid my friend to rest.”
Eve felt Rudy move from behind her to walk back toward the ovens. She reached across the counter and grabbed his sleeve to get him to pause. “Please tell me. What was the question?” She was desperate to know.
“My question is not your question.”
“Then what was it you learned from your question? Tell me something.”
“What I learned was that the measure of a man or a woman is not the sum of their successes or failures. Rather it is revealed through what they are willing to do to mitigate the unkindness or suffering they have brought to others. You’d have to have been in Buchenwald to understand what a brave and honest choice Helmut made there.”
“So, I should forgive him, take him back?” Eve sat motionless, her eyes closed as if praying to grasp what Rudy was telling her, but instead she remained trapped in her anger and predictability. She watched herself slip back into the wretchedness she’d felt when she came in. She got down off her stool, dropped her head and walked out.
Rudy stared after her. He knew only too well how difficult hard-won-wisdom is to pass on to another; how long it takes for the brutalities of life to condense into simple truth. Neither solace nor understanding come until then.
The patron who had entered the bakery earlier had been within earshot of the conversation Eve and Rudy were having. Across the few intervening tables, he asked, “Would you be willing to share your question with me?”
Rudy recognized the signs of a fellow traveler and smiled at the old man. “Did knowing Helmut help me find the best there was in me?”
Discernment settled in the stranger’s eyes. “Ah yes,” was his reply, “ahhh, yes.”
Christina Carson is the author of Accidents of Birth. Place click HERE to purchase a copy from Amazon.