The Feeling You Choose To Feed
A short story
This is the first time I've posted any of my fiction online. I generally think creative work is best offered without too much preamble to try and contextualize it. However, since it differs from what I've done with this web site so far, I thought it worth mentioning that, unlike most of the rest of the stuff I've posted here, this is neither any kind of snarky rant or didactic treatise. It's entirely fiction, offered as is, with the sincere intention of just telling a story.
I hope you enjoy it.
The Feeling You Choose To Feed
“You wanted me to fuck her!” James yelled, exasperated. He waved his arms for emphasis as he said it.
When he brought his arms down, he felt awkward about having them at his side. He decided to fold them across his chest, and then he turned to the window to stare away from her. He could still see her reflection in the glass, her blond hair contrasting against the darkness outside, making it easy for him to still keep an eye on her mannerisms and her mood.
Patricia sat on the bar stool beside the island counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. It was spacious for an apartment in the middle of the city, but still smaller than one would expect for the cost of it. It was expensive to live in the middle of a metropolis, and even the rich compromised on size.
It was at least three in the morning. They had lost track of time since he had come back at two and found her up waiting for him. His clothes smelled of restaurants and clubs, his breath of alcohol. As soon as he had come in, there were questions of where he went and what did he do. Questions that he didn't want to answer, so the discussion dragged on, frustrating both of them.
Her eyes were red and wet, but so far she hadn't cried. She was determined not to lose control.
“You're making it sound like something different than what it was,” she said. Her voice shook a little, but she was determined to sound even handed. “I didn't want you to sleep with her in particular.”
“Yeah, whatever,” James muttered under his breath. She heard him, but neither of them wanted to follow up on his dismissal.
They were silent for a while. He didn't speak because he didn't want to go on. Patricia didn't speak because she wanted him to say something so that she knew what she was dealing with. The argument was so frustratingly vague. James didn't move from his deliberately distracted posture, though, so she decided she would have to be more direct.
“I just want to know... Is this about her, or about me?”
“Does it even matter?”
“Of course it matters. How can we fix anything if we don't know...”
He turned sharply and interrupted her.
“Maybe it's not supposed to be fixed! Is that even an option? Can we break up, or do you have some return policy on me?”
“Don't talk about it like that! Just... don't.”
“Deal with it,” He said. Then he turned back to the window. He could have gone on, but then he'd only be repeating topics that he had used in the past. Topics that were just perceptions of their relationship that were designed purely to be hurtful. He didn't want to hurt her now, though. He was already doing that just by feeling the way he did. There was no need to place salt on the wounds with words.
“Maybe it's just not time yet,” Patricia said. “I've waited 23 years, and I can wait some more. I was warned that it probably won't happen exactly the same way again.”
James turned around slowly this time, and walked a little away from the window, toward the middle of the room.
“I meant my question,” he said.
“What?” she asked. She wasn't being argumentative, she really had missed the question.
“Is us breaking up even an option?” he asked. “What happens if I'm not the same?”
“You are the same...” Patricia said. Her voice was weak. She knew what she was saying was nothing like a convincing argument, but just a plea to not open the door on a topic that they both knew was beyond their understanding.
“No, I'm not,” he said. “I'm similar. I'm... physically the same. But I don't have the same memories. I have my own. I have my own feelings.”
“Are you saying you don't love me?” It was an obvious tactic to not only change the topic, but to raise the stakes emotionally in hopes of trapping him into promises that might be hard for him to back out of. He saw it for what it was, but even though he was fully aware of her manipulation, he also knew there were desperate feelings behind the words that had to be handled carefully.
He came and sat on the stool beside her. He placed one of his hands on hers and held it there in her lap.
“I do love you. But...” he said. He paused to choose his next words carefully. She couldn't help but have her heart flutter a little bit up until he said 'But...' and then she braced herself for what could only be something hurtful.
“I love you like... like you're my mother.”
She turned, and buried her face into her free hand, with her elbow on the counter. She couldn't hold back the tears now, and she wept. With his free hand he handed her a tissue from a nearby box, and she continued to cry and sniffle into it.
A vague statement of not knowing what his feelings were would have been hard to deal with. There would still be hope, though, because something undefined was still open to being formed. But hearing that he already had a fixed place in his heart for her meant that it would be that much harder to move him.
“Is that how you see me? Because I'm so much older...”
Patricia didn't see him roll his eyes.
“You know that's not the case. It's not about looks or anything like that. You don't look any older than anyone else...”
“But you know... you just know I'm over twice your age. Three times her age maybe. You see me as a mature woman...”
“You're just looking for a convenient target for your feelings,” James said. His tone was flat. He wasn't going to suggest where her feelings could or should go.
“Did you fuck her tonight?” she asked. There was a fire inside her that needed release, but she couldn't let it out without something to shape it.
He let go of her hand and got up from the stool.
“Oh, for fuck's sake...”
“No! No, I did not fuck her tonight. She and I haven't had sex in I don't know how long.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because I don't care enough to lie!”
She felt a knot in her stomach tighten so hard that she flinched, as if pulling back from pain. Her tears subsided for a more numb feeling.
This was a break up. There was no denying it now. His feelings were cemented, and all there was for her to do was to come to terms with the new reality. It felt like standing on the edge of a pit without a bottom, where there were no arms of another lover to cushion her fall. All she felt was time of being alone. The hurt she never wanted to suffer again. The crying and pain that one can only go through, not around.
He stepped back toward her and put his hand on her back. She didn't really like the feeling of his comforting caress, because it was full of pity, not support. But she didn't bother to shrug it off. It just didn't matter.
“I'm sorry, that was...,” he said.
“But you meant it,” she said.
“I didn't mean I don't care about you,” he said. “I just don't... this relationship we have... it's not... it's not something I want to be in anymore. We can only be in each others' lives if we're... something else.”
“Like mother and son?” she said, sarcastically.
Not knowing what they were in place of any conventional relationship, he didn't have ready made words. Not that he hadn't thought about it almost all his life. Since even before he knew what she had done, he had tried to find a definition that accounted for how he saw her. Perhaps an outside observer might have been able to put an objective description on the situation, but his feelings were too multi-layered to be satisfied with anyone's summaries.
As he thought about what he would say now that he really needed that definition that he couldn't find in over two decades before this, he moved to the other side of the island counter, into the small kitchenette. He leaned back onto the counter opposite that ran along the wall, with his hands palm down on the counter top.
“Let's face it,“ he said, “there is no term for what we are. People have never had this kind of relationship before. It hardly matters what we call it.”
She knew he was merely being academic, but she couldn't help but let hope find other meanings in his words. Maybe if it was unconventional and beyond preset boundaries, there was room to shape a new definition that might include some of the intimacy she wanted.
“Then maybe we just need to try new ways of having this relationship,” Patricia said. He put up his hand with his palm toward her, in a futile attempt to stop her from continuing. But she didn't pause, and he let his hand slowly lower again as she continued. “No... listen. I... I don't know what it has been like for you to have a woman you knew as an adult since you were a child one day announce that you were intended to marry her, like some arranged marriage. Catching up with her in age... well, you know what I mean... being an adult and then... I made a mistake, thinking that you would grow into having the feelings I hoped you had. I didn't think that feelings you had before would also stay with you. Now I'm not just your girlfriend... your fiancé... but the woman who helped make arrangements when you were a child, the friend of the family when you were a teenager... like an aunt, but not really...”
“Yeah... all that's true, but...”
“No, let me finish. I just took your most current feelings at face value. Maybe I just didn't want to face the complications. But if I... we work with the reality, take into account...”
“Stop!” he interrupted with finality. “All that stuff is there, the way this whole thing is all set up and how you did it and how I responded and all that. But it's all just details. You're just not accepting the fundamental truth.”
She stayed silent because asking would only make him say it sooner.
“I'm not him,” he said. He stated his words one at a time, clearly and concisely.
She knew her response was not going to be in any way helpful, not in any way a counter argument that would carry any weight, but she couldn't stop herself from letting out a denial made only of frustration.
“Yes you are.”
“No... I'm a different person. I have the same genes, but that's not the same as being the same person. I don't have his memories. I don't have his feelings. I have his body... not his soul.”
“You don't even know,” she said. “The way you move, the way you talk... even little things, like the foods you like and the clothes you wear...”
“I'm similar. But I'm just not the same. I'm like a twin, or a son. Similar but different.”
“No... you're the same man, but you've just forgotten some of the past. Like... someone with amnesia.”
“No, that's just an analogy you prefer. There's so much that is different from amnesia.”
“That's no different from you saying you're like a twin. That's just the analogy you prefer...”
“Whatever! No analogy is going to...”
“Don't just dismiss me when I'm talking!”
“I wasn't dismissing you!”
“You've just made up your mind, and you won't listen...”
“I don't have to listen! I have the right to my own life!”
“You wouldn't have a life if I hadn't...”
“That was the risk you took when you paid the money!”
“It's not just about the money...”
“All of it! The arranging for similar circumstances, the schools, the trips, the people...”
“I provided for you!”
“You controlled me!”
“I did not!”
“Yes you did!”
“No, I didn't!”
“Then stop trying to control me now!”
And there she was, trapped into a corner that he probably didn't intend. If she agrees that she expects to be able to determine his life, then he can say their relationship is one sided, and love can't be one sided. But if she lets him have his way, he just walks out on her.
Either way, she loses him.
They shared in a long awkward silence, a moment in a fight where so many avenues seem exhausted, and people don't even know what to do with themselves while no one talks. James looked at the floor and tapped his fingers on the counter top. Patricia stared out across the living room to the windows on the other side. She resolved to take an entirely different strategy.
“You even fight with me like you used to,” she said, and she got up to come around the island counter to his side.
Her choice of words irked him, because of the presumption of who he was built into how she phrased it. But he knew that to fight her on how she saw things was more like a high school debate assignment than any kind of meaningful dialogue. As she walked up in front of him, he put up his hands to push her away, but he found it hard to do. He didn't hate her, he wasn't repulsed by her. Quite the opposite. She was beautiful and fun and they usually got along great. The only thing wrong with their relationship was how it defined him to be in it.
“We used to have these huge fights,” she said. She pressed up against him. Her voice was as soft as the feel of her body. There was an aura created by the scent of her, a combination of the mildly perfumed beauty products she used, the fresh smell of her skin, and her warm breath. “We'd fight, and then fuck until the bed caught fire.”
Her hands ran up his chest. His hands were up, whether to surrender or resist, he wasn't sure. Not knowing what else do to, he put his arms around her and his hands came to rest on the small of her back. It was impossible to not want to follow the curves of her body with his fingertips.
“No one can fuck you the way I can,” she said. “I know ways to turn you on that you don't even understand yet...”
His head felt light and his eyes closed as she pressed her lips against his, their tongues meeting in a heated passion made inevitable by their familiarity. The undeniable truth of her words was a drug that he wanted to give in to. He knew it would be wrong to sleep with her and then leave anyway, but her pull was so strong that he wanted to forget about the morning and do this now. He even thought about keeping the relationship going just for the incredible sex, but then he'd be having this internal conflict every time.
Was it worth it?
As she moved one hand around to the back of his neck and the other slid down to unbutton his pants, he felt it was worth it. At this moment, it was worth letting the whole world blow up in a nuclear war.
It's too easy to think of risk in terms of sacrificing everybody else, though. This isn't the world at stake, it's one person. If you sleep with her, he thought, you are the man she says you are. You never died, you only went away for a while. You were always her greatest love and still are. If you fuck her, the man she says you are lives. The man you think you are dies.
He pushed her away, catching her enough by surprise that she stumbled backward, her hands still in the same position, like a mannequin. She recovered, and in a panicked attempt, stepped forward to keep seducing him, knowing that she had lost the fight to the rational part of him that spoke words. All she had left was to be purely physical and hope he lost control.
He stepped to the side to get out from between her and the kitchen counter. Once free, he walked briskly out of the kitchenette and into the living room. She just watched him from where he left her standing. She felt exposed, having had her offering of passion rejected, so she crossed her arms and tightened her shoulders, like people do when they're cold.
There was another long silence as they stood still in the first moments of the new and certain reality that they were broken up. It was almost as hard to know what to talk about as when meeting someone for the first time.
“I'm not going to spend the night here,” he said.
“Where will you go?”
“I'll stay with Tara for a few nights.”
“Just tell me...” she started. She tried very hard to suppress the tension in her voice. “I just want to know the truth. Are you leaving because of her? For her?”
“No. We're not...” he resented the idea of having to explain himself. Explaining anything to her never felt like just an explanation for its own sake. It always felt like it was a part of monitoring the degree to which he was on or off the path she set out for him. In this moment especially, he wanted to exercise his freedom of having things in his life that she didn't have to understand. But at the same time, he wanted to end the fight and leave, and it seemed easiest to not emphasize having secrets.
“I only ever slept with her when she and I were going out,” he said. “During that time when you wanted me to be free, to have experiences like his.” He wanted to drive home that everything that happened between him and Tara was part of Patricia's plan for him. But that was just being petty. Throwing in Patricia's face that he had done everything as she had intended, but he still needed to be his own person. So he softened his description. “Look, we're just friends. She's become part of a whole world of my own friends. And that's what I want. My own world. It's not about sex. Really. There isn't anyone else. This is just about me.”
“It's always been about you,” she said. It wasn't meant to be an accusation, it was just a truth that fell from her lips because it fit the moment.
“Yeah... it has,” he said. “And not about you. I've never been in love like you were with him, but I'm living proof of how deep it must have cut to have lost him. But holding on to him... me... us... whatever it is that you tried to recreate by cloning him, keeps you in a relationship that doesn't exist anymore. I'm not the product of your love, I'm the result of your denial.”
“Denial can't last for 23 years,” she said. “It had to be love that sustained me for so long. It had to be love that was even stronger than death. You came back to me...”
He shifted uncomfortably. Moments ago he only wanted to leave for his own sake. Now he had to leave for her sake too. And that meant he had to leave her with the truth. The only way both of them were going to move on was to deal with the truth. He had to be strong enough to say it, and she had to be strong enough to hear it.
“I think...” he said, “I think that time can make any feeling stronger if it's the one you choose to feed.”
She was as still as a statue, leaning with her back against the fridge, and not moving in any way that would indicate that she was listening. But he knew she was. After all, at this moment in their lives, there wasn't a single other sound in the universe other than his voice.
“I think you made me so that you never had to let go. But... I think that my real purpose in coming back is to say goodbye. For you to look at me and say goodbye.”
Tears started to stream down her face, and she looked up to watch him walk over to her. He stood right in front of her, expectant. He didn't look hurried or insistent. He had said his piece, and now he was here to see if she was ready to move on with him. He could have said goodbye first, to initiate the ritual they must perform. But it seemed important that she be the one to do it.
“Goodbye,” she said. She said it looking down, her voice weak and unconvincing. Then she realized that if she was going to say it, she should commit to it completely. If nothing else, to maintain some dignity in spite of being denied everything else she hoped for. She straightened up, took in a breath, and composed herself. Then she looked him straight in the eyes.
“Goodbye,” Patricia said. She even smiled just a little after she said it. Now that she was firmly on the other side of a decision, there was a certain amount of relief.
“Goodbye,” James said.
They hugged, and it was sincere and warm.
When they separated, they felt a moment of awkwardness, as it seemed that there was nothing else to do. It should have been a scene in a movie, where after saying goodbye, it would fade to black and the moment would be preserved.
“I, uh...” he said, “I guess I should probably go.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, you don't have to rush off or anything, though.”
“No, um... thanks. But I think it's better that I just go. Are you going to be okay?”
“I'll be fine. Don't worry. Really.”
“Okay. I'll be in touch.”
He kissed her on the forehead.
He turned and walked to the front door. His departure was swift, since he had not changed since coming home earlier. He only needed to grab his jacket and slip on his shoes. All she heard as he departed was the jingle of his car keys as he pulled them out of his jacket pocket just before he closed the front door behind him.
She took in a deep breath and let it out again, along with the stiffness and tension that had been in her body. Suddenly she could hear the world. The hum of the fridge. Traffic off in the distance. Distant and indistinct noises that she could barely hear and never identify. She felt like she was back on the planet again.
She turned to open a cupboard and pull out a wine glass. He was right, she told herself. Saying goodbye to him was the right thing to do.
In a little wooden rack were some red wines that were half empty and with plastic stoppers in place of corks. She pulled one out and popped the little lever that opened the bottle.
The whole thing had been a mistake, she thought, but I can't blame myself for not knowing then what I know now. Even at the time, I knew full well that I was emotional and not thinking totally straight. Not everyone would have made the same decision, but the pursuit of love is never a logical path.
No... the past is the past and I've learnt my lesson. I tried for 23 years to force something that was never going to work. It's impossible to recreate a human being exactly like one that came before. Even if it were possible to recreate all the life experiences that helped shape who that person was, a human can always respond a different way the second time around.
She resolved that she was not going to make any more attempts to recreate James just from his DNA. The person she loved was in his mind, not his genes.
Fortunately, she thought, a lot has changed in 23 years, and apparently they have new techniques in reading neural networks. I'm glad I let that doctor talk me into preserving the body in case more DNA was needed, Patricia thought. At the time it seemed like just something extra for the clinic to bill for. Now, though...
His original body and brain might have been too damaged in the accident to repair, but if enough of the neural network remained, then maybe now it can be reconstructed and he could be downloaded into a new body.
She poured herself some wine, and then took both the bottle and glass with her to the living room. A wave of her hand signalled the entertainment centre to come on so that she could access the internet. She sat down and carefully placed the wine bottle on the glass coffee table in front of her.
“Computer, new search,” She said. ”Neural network backup and recovery services.”
It was time to let go of the past, and say hello to new possibilities.
Thank you for having read my story.
Part of the motivation for having written it, and in the way it was written, was because one time I read a critique of science fiction that pointed out how the genre suffers from writers over explaining every aspect of how their fictional universe works. The fear is that the reader won't know how this other world works, and so writers tend to cram in expository details. Hopefully, if what I wrote worked, then details about what makes this future different from our present are revealed with enough detail so the reader isn't lost, but not in a way that would differ from how a story set in the real world would be told.
The challenge I set out for myself was to not use the word "clone" until past the point when I felt it was both already understood, and when it was natural to the point of unavoidable for one of the characters to blurt it out.
And there you have it.