Transition accepted Tharn! for a special edition on humour in January, 2011. It was also the second time that one of my stories was subjected to editing, only this time with my permission as well as my active participation, to fit within the editor's constant demands for length. I never felt slighted; on the contrary, I felt a heightened sense of contribution. Something that the folks who mangled "A Word" might want to consider.
Tharn! is a tongue-in-cheek (and perhaps cynical) tale of the paranoia that often exists between the sexes in the early stages of a relationship - of how truth becomes the first casualty. In this case - as in many cases - the lost truth is considering experience to be knowledge.
“What do you want from this?” she asked, ever so innocently – like, in the same tone a spider might use when inviting a fly to its web.
“I mean, it’s time to speak honestly, don’t you think?”
If there’s one thing that gives me ‘the heartburn’ (as W.O. Mitchell used to say) it’s when a woman steers you toward the correct answer. Not that I don’t appreciate the guidance, mind, but they’re so darned inconsistent with it. Now, if she’d given me the same sort of hint for her first question, I’d be miles ahead of where I was now.
“Well, don’t you?”
Sometimes we higher life forms are just kidding ourselves, thinking we have freedom of choice.
“Sure!” I try to sound like I just love where she’s going with this, “Absolutely!”
But if ever there was a time to equivocate, or to lie, or to pretend you have been suddenly rendered mute, or to just plain fall into a swoon that will last until she changes the subject, now is that time.
She had it dangling over me like Damocles’ sword, just itching to split my head in two. Except of course, the blade wasn’t poised over my head - with women it never is.
You see, the thing was this had a fifty-fifty chance of going either way, and in my experience, those odds fall well short of being anywhere near satisfactory.
If I told her I was only in this for shits and giggles, and it turned out she had her heart set on something altogether more serious, she’d have my balls for breakfast, and we’d be finito. But if, on the other hand, it was I who wanted to see where this might take us, and she who was simply looking for something uncomplicated, that sword would still slice off my cajones, and so much for scenario number two.
In fact, the only way of avoiding disaster was for our terms to be compatible, but I didn’t have a clue as to what they were.
I felt frozen in the headlights, feeling helpless, like there’s nothing I can do but sit there, allowing the forces of Doom to descend and utterly destroy me.
There’s a word for this state. In Watership Down, Richard Adams called it Tharn.
I don’t mean for it to sound the way it does. I mean, I’m falling for this girl, or at least I think I could be falling for her, or I think I might be reaching the point to where I could visualize myself falling for her, but I wasn’t ready to say so just yet – not even to myself.
“I mean, we keep skirting around it, don’t we?”
“Yeah,” I said, still none the wiser, “we do.”
Of course the main attraction for me, or at least the main attraction thus far was that she coupled like a stoat of Gomorrah must have coupled, but there was no use telling her that. Women don’t take such compliments the same as men.
‘I want to be with you,’ I might say, ‘because you couple like a Gomorrah stoat.’
‘Really?’ she would reply, ‘How lovely of you to say so.’ I don’t think.
Hearken and tremble all ye men and know: regardless of what they may tell you, women are different.
“I think it’s time to stop pussyfooting around.”
It’s a wonder more women aren’t into small engine repair. I mean, they just love to tinker with the mechanics of things. There we were, purring along famously, then she has to go and see what’ll happen if the spark is advanced just the teensiest bit.
“Stop pussyfooting!” I repeat with false enthusiasm, “By all means, couldn’t agree more.” Then I start doing so for all I am worth.
“Four weeks,” I give my head an appreciative but neutral shake…which is not easy to do.
Four weeks is the amount of time we’ve been together. My neutrality could mean either I thought that was very long, or hardly any time at all.
“Yes,” she was watching me closely, “and how do you feel about that?”
How do I feel, forsooth! Christ, we were striking into the very heart of femininity!
To buy time, I laugh a hoarse laugh. “How do I feel?!” and again, with emphasis “How do I feel?!” I give an admiring chuckle, as though she’s really gotten a good one in - like she’s just made a really good joke or something. But the fact is I’m praying like hell she’ll think I consider the question too incredibly ludicrous to answer.
“Yes, how do you feel?”
Damn! Damn and blast! She had me backed into a corner and (at the risk of mixing metaphors) I’d have to come down on one side or other pretty soon. One mistake and, at the very least, a really fun time would go up in smoke. At the very worst, my life would be ruined!
But wait! She’d mentioned ‘pussyfooting’, hadn’t she? Now, that was a serious word which only a serious person would use! No one who was just interested in a little slap-and-tickle would say anything even remotely resembling ‘pussyfooting’ in that context!
So I gave her my most frank stare and opened my mouth to tell her that I wanted us to go further…then closed it again, and glanced away.
Maybe it was a trap. Maybe she had some insecurities, and she was setting this trap for me to blunder into. Then she could give me the old heave-ho and avoid having to deal with her baggage, all at the same time.
Yeah, that made sense. All women have hang-ups, absolutely all of them, and with that total inclusion comes the fact that not a single one is willing to face any of them head-on. Like I said, they’re not like men – not like me, for instance. ‘Level-headed’ was my byword, and ‘baggage’, for me, meant an extra pair of socks and a change of underwear. Matter of fact, if you were to get to know me, you’d probably think I was Beaver Cleaver’s dad. But in contrast, there’s a reason why women wear heels: it’s their way of telling you they don’t have two feet on the ground – only ten toes, which is not quite the same, any way you care to look at it.
So, with that in mind, it would be best to tell her I was gung-ho for the status quo. That way the pressure would be off and her hang-ups could go whistle.
Except, of course, if that wasn’t the case, it would be the worst possible thing to tell her.
Cursing silently, I lied, “Well, that’s a very good question.” I sat back, steepling my fingers sagaciously against my chest and looked to heaven for guidance, “Yes, certainly an excellent question.”
But now I was stymied - totally Tharn. A long uncomfortable pause was inevitable, and the only thing worse than saying the wrong thing was to say nothing at all. When that happened it would be over, tout finis, kaput. Anything I said afterward would be too late.
I sat there, staring at her in a state of mute panic, almost hearing the engine roar as that murderous machine bore down on me, thirsting to rend limb from limb, like a ravenous wolf would an innocent lamb.
But then, in the nick of time, Blessed Inspiration came to me like it comes to people maybe once in their lives, if that!
“It’s complicated,” I said, avoiding her eyes.
The complexities of the feminine mind are forever attracted to a kindred spirit…unless, of course, she just wanted to keep things simple!
“Oh? How so?”
I almost faint with relief (God, I wish I had!) But she’d swallowed the bait, and that was a good thing.
“I mean you’re so fascinating,” I glance up to see how she’s taking this. Her head was tilted quizzically to one side (excellent!)
I left it hanging.
“Go on,” she prompted.
“What I mean is you’re not like other girls. You’re so….” My hand slowly stirred the air while my eyes continued to gaze skyward.
“You’re so….” I cease stirring for a moment, squint thoughtfully – consider - then give my head an impatient shake as though discarding a word found wanting.
The point of this exercise, of course, was to turn the object of our discussion from myself to her, and it would seem that had been successfully carried out – admirably carried out, if I do say so myself. Now that she realized I found her fascinating, she just wouldn’t be human if she didn’t want to hear more.
Finally, I let my hands fall into my lap, and give my wrists a weak flip: failure personified.
“Complex,” I finish lamely, with just a hint of self-annoyance to suggest I found this totally inadequate.
Well, obviously that wasn’t the case at all; it was the perfect word! I defy anyone who has been described as ‘fascinating’ and ‘complex’ not to be intrigued by it. I mean, I’d be intrigued if someone referred to me that way.
“Really?” she leaned forward, “I’m intrigued.”
“I mean, you’re so beautiful,” her brow twitched with annoyance so I hurried on, “but that’s the very least of it.”
It became serene again.
“It’s just that I don’t understand what you see in a guy like me.”
A little self-effacement never hurt anyone, especially if you put it in such a way as to elicit a reply. And it was true too, of course. I’ll admit honesty has its uses sometimes.
“You’re interesting,” she offered, which was good for starters, but it would be bad form to let her go on – especially if she wasn’t willing to.
“I’m glad you think so,” I cut in with polite impatience, as though considering this was a given (which was far from the truth), “but the thing is there’s so much more about you that makes your physical self seem almost common by comparison.”
I’ll admit that was going out on a limb; no woman ever wants her looks to be brought into question. But it was plain as day she’d been told she was beautiful so many times by so many guys (all of who would’ve had an ulterior motive, of course) that she regarded such comments with suspicion, almost as an occupational hazard. So, to be confronted by someone who found her appearance lacking in relation to her mind, and with the gumption to say so, well, odds were I’d go up a notch or two in her estimation.
Sure enough, her face clouded over like it was getting ready to storm for a week, but it cleared up again as soon as she caught my meaning. Then I saw something new in the way she looked at me, and wondered if it wasn’t gratitude.
The beauty of it is I wasn’t lying, not about that part anyway. For one thing her mind was like a treasure chest filled with rare jewels. It drew me to her like a fly to fly-paper, and did almost as much for me on the physical side as did her body. Then there was her sense of humour that kept rocking me back on my heels, because it was so original and not cruel the way most humour is. But even all that paled when compared to…well, just the good old common sense way there was about her. Most beautiful women like to talk about themselves and not much else - it’s groomed into them. But she wasn’t like that. Oh, she wasn’t immune to a compliment every now and then (like what I was doing now, for instance) but it would have to be carefully tempered and not overdone, otherwise I would end up doing my cause far more harm than good.
But for all that, what it all came down to was that she was a woman, and being a woman, she just had to ask bloody awkward questions, like the one that started all this in the first place. Still, when it came to brass tacks, say what you like, life hasn’t been boring since I met her.
So I summed up with, “You’re like no one else I’ve ever known, man or woman.”
Gender neutral statements go over big with women, but I found myself perplexed to be speaking more from the heart than I’d originally intended. I also discovered a curious lack of being unsettled by that.
She gave me a hard look that lasted an eternity. Then, thank God, it slowly broke into a smile to let me know the inquisition was over and I was off the hook.
“So are you,” she said, and I think she meant it, too.
We sat in silence, feeling closer than ever, like somewhere along the line we’d taken a step toward something.
Then I caught her smiling secretly to herself.
“Oh, I was just curious how you were going to wriggle out of that, is all.”
Aghast, I stared at her, feeling the blood turning cold in my veins.
“You mean you did that on purpose?!”
“Of course,” she giggled. “How else am I supposed to test your mettle?”
I took a long sober moment to consider the improbity of women, thinking I might have to reassess her sense of humour after all.
By god, I’d been had! She’d led me on a wild goose chase, and had me jumping through one flaming hoop after another, like a toothless old lion in a one-ring circus, just so she could satisfy an idle curiosity!
With that knowledge came a flash of anger, a grim determination that I would continue to be my own man – my own level-headed self - and that nothing, or no one, would ever lead me around by the nose again!
I felt used, degraded, my sensibilities ruthlessly invaded for the sole purpose of being mocked. It wasn’t good enough, not by a damn sight! This was war! I’d see her in hell! I’d rather drink hemlock than spend one more minute with such an unfeeling creature! Why, I….!
But then, in spite of everything, I suddenly found myself laughing too - a kind of ‘vive la différence’ sort of chuckle.
What the hell, we only go around once, right?
“Well for starters,” I said, taking her hand before kissing her gently on the mouth, “let’s talk about the stoats of ancient Gomorrah.”
That’s probably what she had in mind all along.