Zij

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And give me news of him now and again,
so that I will not have to ask strangers
who wonder at my boldness, and
neighbors who pity my persistence.
You whose hands are more innocent than mine
stay by his bedside
and be gentle to his dream.” -Vesna Parun

When every word and statement appears as though it had been engineered to extract information manipulatively and surreptitiously (the listener is too suspicious to fall for that), a conversation is always a cat-and-mouse game. Zij wanted nothing more than to pump hard for information but knew she could not get any if she went for the hard sell. No, it had to be subtler, a conversation in which casual half-remarks might pique the listener’s interest and cause a careless offer of more information than intended. Zij attempted at times to lull the listener into loose-lipped revelation through flattery, searching out all the buttons that would stroke even the ego of a person so tightly controlled they didn’t seem to have an ego. The listener, connected in some feverishly imagined way to a place Zij wanted to get back to, calmly responded in an academic and dispassionate way to all comments.

When Zij did not get what she wanted, she changed tack.

“You are “better” than me in so many ways,” Zij said to the listener. “A more high-minded being.”

Why should such comparatives arise at all? It made no sense to compare: the listener is no better or worse than Zij. Either Zij wanted to be reassured that it wasn’t true, or she really must have self-esteem that low. So uncomfortable was Zij that she was unable to focus her love on herself or those who had proven themselves to love her unconditionally. No, there was always the increasingly hard pushing-away, boring in to gather ammunition while at the same time diffusing attention across as many sources as possible, to find solace temporarily where there really was none.

Thinking these thoughts, the listener listened. Why should the listener constantly be compared against this phantom from the past, by that phantom herself? What was the purpose of this exercise? In response, the listener finally replied coolly, “No, ‘better’ is not the right frame for this. It’s just different. People, as simple as it sounds, would not be interesting if we were all the same.”

When the listener proved to be responsive only to talk of her identity and bouts of mania, and this did not produce information – or even a reaction, Zij tried another approach:

“That place – that island – is so completely different from every other place on earth. I didn’t appreciate it when I was there, but it was unique and nothing else can rival it in the world. I should have loved it for what it was but didn’t. I was careless, making a mess of this land, inviting equally unappreciative strangers there, stripping and commoditizing this oasis.”

The listener remained silent, knowing a contradiction was coming.

“But I don’t understand why the island grew so inhospitable. I am sure that any other place in the world would have accommodated us forever – because that’s what places are for – that is what they do!”

The listener considered this, finally answering, “Can you really have appreciated the island for its real qualities if you never really knew them? If you used it for your own purposes but didn’t understand its ecology, what sustained it? And now, so many years later, can you be trusted as sincere in your regret at abusing and trampling all over the island and pushing it to the brink, if it appears that your regret is only about what you lost – and not about what the island lost or didn’t have in the first place, or didn’t get from letting you run rampant all over and through it? If your regret for the place and how you mistreated it were real, wouldn’t you step back and respect that it needs its own oxygen, it needs time… it can’t regenerate as long as the weeds and vines of the past continue to overgrow and overreach everything?”

Zij was silent, if only briefly. She did not like this answer at all. Attempting to regain the upper hand, completely forgetting any pretension of composure, she changed strategy yet again. Wanting to elicit… what? Anger? Jealousy? Curiosity? Insecurity? Uncertainty? To drive a wedge?:

“Do you have any idea how many people want desperately to visit that island now? For some reason it’s completely off-limits, but even people who have exclusive access to every other place in the world, who have piles of invitations they could accept… they want to go to THIS place but are denied. Why is it that you are welcomed there… and they aren’t? What is it about you that is so special?”

Underneath these words, the listener could hear a childish, deafening and always-growing-louder refrain: “WHY YOU? WHY YOU? WHY YOU?” underpinned by a whispering and desperate, “And why not me?” The listener again failed to react, immediately, thinking of the inherent immaturity of this line of questioning, wanting to quote the simplistic Bonjour tristesse: «Vous vous faites de l’amour une idée un peu simpliste. Ce n’est pas une suite de sensations indépendantes les unes des autres…» But knowing there was nothing that could be said to reliably explain anything. No explanations were required or owed.

It seemed once more, or still, that Zij asked the wrong questions of the wrong entity, diffusing all her pent up frustrations, regrets and feelings to all the wrong people. And the listener could only feel sad compassion for a life spent idealizing a past that kept her from fully living in the present.

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