Short Story Competiton – Shared Third Place: Mark and Henry

As a professor of law, specialising in freedom of speech, Mark had concerned himself for the most part of his life with the weight of words. He felt strong about rhetoric, prose and text. They’d gotten into one of their quarrels over a frequently discussed topic that night.

– “I panicked baby, I didn’t know what to say”.

– “It’s not what you said Henry, it’s the way you said it”.

Henry could hear his calm, deep voice floating in from the bathroom door where Mark was shaving himself. In those five long beautiful years, Henry had never seen Mark lose his cool. They’d talk about their innermost feelings or painful childhood memories but Mark would always keep his composure. Henry enjoyed this because it had a calming effect on his temper. Even when they’d fight he could look at Mark and admire him, admire his posture and way of speaking. He could clearly love him through the fog of annoyance. For him, love was about this. Creating something sustainable, something enduring in a transitory reality. A feeling of pertaining to something essential, to a stable core around which the fast paced and ever changing world revolved. Mark always told him that the gravity of words was determined by their form. Once, when they had known each other for not so long, he’d read the introduction to one of Mark’s researchpapers. He could remember being greatly impressed by this first encounter with his intellect. The introduction had stuck with him ever since:

‘’As Jose Ortega y Gasset declared during the first half of this century: man is nothing but man and the circumstances. It seems then, that from this viewpoint words are no different from men. They are, after all, firstly and fore mostly determined by their form and context. Moreover, as the definition of human life starts with its material circumstances, (that is to say: with the absolute conditions in which it finds itself) this is also the case for the words we speak. Their shape and interpretation commences with the mouth that speaks them. This is what freedom of speech is about.

Probably without knowing it, Mark had just transmitted the same message to him while standing in the bathroom shaving himself. Henry sat down on the couch on the opposite side of the room so he could see Mark’s body and face in profile, standing in front of the mirror with his razor, carefully stroking the white cream off his neck. He went on in his steady voice:

– “You knew I had that meeting in my office today Henry.”

It seemed as if he pronounced his name extra slowly and expressly to make him feel his deception.

– “I know baby,” Henry responded with a hint of remorse in his voice, “I just wanted to pass by to say Hi and give you a quick kiss.”

He had never known about the meeting.

– “I know your intentions were good, but the way you entered and the way you said it. I mean, why would you come in my office and tell me to please wash the mugs like that? The tone of your voice just gave you straight away.”

Earlier that day, Henry had gone up to Mark’s office on the second floor where the law faculty was situated. He knew that it wasn’t a regular thing for an administrative clerk to go up to the offices of the faculty-staff but he hadn’t seen Mark for a week since his trip to Washington. When he had opened the door of Mark’s office with a generous smile on his face he had instantly realised he’d made a mistake. He’d found four slightly disturbed faces turning and looking at him. The only expression in the room that presented a different emotion was Mark’s which was one of controlled panic and surprise. In a millisecond Henry had realised he had to say something to his involuntary public to compensate for his unannounced entry. Without thinking much he had looked Mark in the eye and asked him if he could wash the used mugs that had accumulated in the kitchen of the faculty-staff. He had closed the door and returned down the corridor to the elevator. The nausea he knew so well had presented itself in his lower stomach and he had felt like going home and saying the words.

“It’s just that, you’ve been so busy lately and I missed you”, Henry told him. Mark stopped shaving himself when Henry was in mid-sentence. He turned to face him. They locked eyes. Mark did not have any clothes on. Henry knew that Mark had a weakness for weakness. Mark put down his razor and approached Henry without taking his eyes of his. When the embrace came, Henry could feel a tidal wave of warmth absorbing his anxiety over the day’s happenings. He breathed deeply and felt his body relaxing for the first time since he had entered Mark’s office. The tension relief was of such proportion that it came close to an orgasmic sensation. It was satisfaction withheld for so long that it made the contrary feel ever better. The tense elastic of dry scarcity finally released and catapulted into overflowing lavishness. His only respite.

– “I have to go now. They’re waiting.” Mark whispered into his ear while loosening his grip.

– “I know.” Henry stared at the ground and felt a tear rolling down his face.

When Henry entered his car it was like waking from a dream to find himself in a desert. His mouth tasted dry as the hands on the wheel led him home.

The high-pitched voices of Sandra and Donny met his ears when he turned his key in the lock. “Daddy, daddy, daddy!!” He embraced his son and daughter. Toys were scattered on the floor. Looking up, he saw his wife coming from the kitchen with an oven glove on one hand and a spoon in the other. She looked at him with a blank stare, stressed out from a long day’s work but still emanating her relentless trust in him as a husband.

– “You told me you would cook today.”

It was always the most difficult when he saw his wife like this. He could feel the words surge. Five long years filled with words that only accumulated weight as time passed.

They could turn him into a neighbourhood-gossip.

– “Did you hear about that couple down the street?”

They could be a running gag between students.

– “You know that front-desk clerk at Humanities? Turns out he’s a fag. A married one.”

They could be the tears down his children’s faces on their birthdays.

– “But I thought he would be here…”

– “Come on now honey, blow out the candles.”

And their eventual forgiveness.

“We still love you dad.”

But they weren’t. They paraded up and down his lips until they were launched back inward by their gravity. Falling down into his throat and landing in his self-imposed determination that manifested itself as a nausea in his stomach. It was the nausea that preceded their surge. They always surged, but remained unpronounced by the mouth that wanted to speak them.

By Kees van Ekeren

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