This weekend we have “Something Simple, Something Complicated,” by C.E. Hyun, a story in which a good relationship, a good man, is, of course, only one part of a complicated whole. My interest began with personal reasons (read: the Ph.D. experience), and then got drawn into the honesty, the realness, and the gap between what we want and what we have. Read on. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
At the time, Lucy Hayek saw Zack as a better alternative to experimenting with a bunch of anti-depressants. Lucy had moved to Columbus for graduate school, where she quickly realized she had made a grave mistake. Signing up for a five-year economics Ph.D. required that one genuinely want it, and looking around at her fellow classmates, Lucy saw she did not want it nearly enough. She would have dropped out if she were brave enough. Fear forced her to stay and eke out a minimal existence in her program.
Lucy and Zack frequented the same coffee shop, always sitting in the same back section. There were three wobbly tables and a single electric outlet. He interrupted her one night from a headphone induced daze with a sheepish grin, explained his laptop was running low on battery. She learned bits and pieces about him over the next several weeks. He’d grown up and gone to school in the South, was in Ohio for his medical residency. He had a soft spot for buckeye mochas and was currently wading through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. Brienne of Tarth was his favorite character.
They got dinner in the Short North, where guest-written haikus hung on the walls of the Japanese restaurant they ate at. He spoke excitedly about his work, then worried that he was boring her with the technical details. “No, I like hearing about it,” she told him, and she meant it. “It’s nice to hear you enjoy what you do.”
Afterwards, they wandered through the monthly Gallery Hop. The neighborhood was pretty with its arches lit up at night, and they looked at the art exhibits, the little shops with their brightly colored glass ornaments and handmade jewelry, the various street performers. It was February and Zack wore a thin coat and no gloves. Lucy teased him about his lack of winter clothing, and she took his hands between hers.
His lips were cold when she leaned up to kiss him. The inside of his mouth was warm. His tongue moved shyly over hers, and he pulled back to gauge her reaction. “You’re cute,” she said. “You’re very sweet.”
She was up front with Zack. “I’m not looking for anything serious or long-term.” He seemed to be on board with this, and with that disclaimer out of the way, she felt free to otherwise treat it like a regular relationship. He lived alone, and so they spent most of their time at his place.
This was how she discovered Zack still slept on a mattress absent box spring and frame, despite his living in the apartment for over a year. (In that same span of time, he had somehow accumulated three flat-screen TVs.) It was no wonder he liked eating out so much; his kitchen contained only cereal and microwaveable foods. He used his dishwasher as a drying rack. His refrigerator had an impressive array of alcoholic beverages, but nothing in the way of fruits and vegetables.
He became her pet project, and it gave her a measure of control, to help fix Zack’s life. She taught him how to navigate the produce section. She told him to get a real bed. When he took initiative on a solo trip and bought a giant bag of grapes, he offered them to her straight out of the bag. “You have to wash them first!” she said, horrified. “It’s not just dirt and bugs. They’re covered with pesticides.”
He jokingly complained, but freely admitted to enjoying the attention and acting less than competent to get her to push him aside and do the thing herself. “You’re so calm and collected,” he liked to tell her. He teased her for being the master of control.
He didn’t know that earlier that day, before going over to his place, Lucy had lain curled up in her bed in an unproductive stupor. He didn’t know that the day before that, she had met with a psychiatrist. And he wouldn’t know because Lucy would never tell him. Around him, she considered it a moot point.
She met with the psychiatrist to force herself to admit her depression aloud. She met with the psychiatrist to convince herself that she was being proactive, that it was a way to “hit bottom” so she could work her way back up. She braced herself for the obligatory questions about whether she was having suicidal thoughts. Was she considering suicide? From a professional perspective, she understood that the questions were necessary. But when you felt bad, who didn’t have such thoughts? What was more important was that she wouldn’t act on them. So she lied and said no. Or half-lied and said she had in the past, but wasn’t thinking them now. She picked up her prescription as insurance. Even though it hadn’t worked well for her in the past, it felt better to have it, just in case.
The first year was hard, but Lucy compartmentalized. She didn’t call home as often as she should. Her parents weren’t the demanding types who expected daily, detailed reports. They acknowledged that she was busy and had her own life. They just wanted her to check in, to know that she was okay.
“Oh, has it really been two weeks?” Lucy would say when they called. “I’ve just been really busy.” So busy, so distracted. That’s why she never called. School was stressful but manageable. She got along with her roommate. She had made several good friends. She had even made a good friend outside of school.
On some level, she knew what she was doing was wrong. She knew that the rationalization that it was for their own good—they were far away and could do nothing about it, why make them worry?—was a lie. She knew it would be upsetting and hurtful, if they were to learn that she kept this from them.
She joked to Zack about the stresses of school, her grave doubts in deciding to pursue her Ph.D., even though she wasn’t joking. While they occasionally socialized with others from Lucy’s class or Zack’s residency, for the most part, it was just the two of them. They explored the area’s restaurants and cafes. He liked to exercise, and it gave her an incentive to be active and go to the gym. They drove up to Cleveland and spent an afternoon downtown, going to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and wandering around the harbor. It was a bright cloudy day, and Lucy admired the sight of triangular glass against the lake and gray sky.
They ended up spending the night, and Zack woke her up at the crack of dawn, saying he wanted to stop at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Lucy complained. She had no interest in this park she’d never heard of. And if they were going to go, couldn’t it be several hours later? Zack said no, she had to get up now. He enthusiastically led the way through a hemlock forest and Lucy grudgingly followed, nursing an enormous Starbucks coffee and shivering against the morning cold.
Who would have expected such a place to exist? There were ledges of Sharon conglomerate rock. They towered large and unexpected, and Lucy and Zack meandered through the crevices, crunching over dry leaves. Bright green moss covered the rock walls, and the morning sun filtered through to mingle with the fog. It was otherworldly and magical, and Lucy had to admit: “I’m glad you made me come.” At his grin, she rolled her eyes. “Try not to get too much pleasure out of proving me wrong.”
Even though she spent a lot of time with Zack, there were greater amounts of time when she wasn’t with him. During the worst moments, she made sure she wasn’t with him. There was a period of days where she would cry every time she drove in her car. Her skin felt tight and she battled feelings of paranoia. Bright lights, packed hallways, and loud and happy students were too much stimuli, and she ran errands late at night away from prying imaginary eyes. She slept a lot to cope. She blew off Zack with excuses of being overwhelmed with school.
It rained for days and days. For some reason, she had never associated Ohio with this much rain. She walked across the Oval clutching her umbrella, but the rain blew sideways and soaked her coat and jeans. It was still raining at the end of the night, as she was getting ready to leave, and the walk back to her apartment suddenly seemed like an insurmountable task. She was in a frame of mind where it would be too much effort to avoid the giant rain puddles, too much effort to look out for and avoid the oncoming cars.
It was strange how one’s survival instinct kicked in during such moments, telling you exactly what you needed to do. She called Zack, asked him to pick her up from school. She didn’t want to go home, so he took her back to his place, where she asked if she could use his shower. For all the time she spent there, she had never until this point showered at his place.
“Of course,” he said.
She came out to see he’d laid out clothes for her—a faded shirt and baggy flannels, awkwardly folded—on the bed. For some reason, the sight of them caused her to physically hurt. She looked up as Zack came into the bedroom. “Oh hey, I figured you needed something to wear,” he said. He noticed her face. “Lucy?”
She started to cry.
“Lucy, what’s wrong?”
She brought her hand to her face. Her other hand clutched the towel knotted at her chest. She managed: “You’re so nice to me.”
He walked over and touched her arms. When she wouldn’t look at him, he reached out and pulled her into a hug. “Hey, it’s okay.” He laughed awkwardly. “This is out of nowhere. What’s wrong?”
She wouldn’t say. She just started apologizing, telling him that she wasn’t usually like this, that she’d had a bad day. Maybe it was seasonal affective disorder. He held her and let her cry. Later, they lay in bed. She faced away from him. She felt the heat of his body and reached out to take his hand, wrapping his arm around her waist. In that moment, she felt protected and safe, and while she hadn’t wanted Zack to witness this, she felt strangely calm now that it was over.
From behind her, Zack said softly: “You can talk to me.”
She stared into the dark. “I know. But it doesn’t help me to talk about it.”
In June, Lucy flew to Santa Barbara to spend several weeks with her family. It was good to be home, and by this time, the worst of her depression had lifted. She spent long days reading favorite books in her room. She went hiking on the weekends with her father. She accompanied her mother on daytime errands, and they wandered several afternoons through downtown Santa Barbara, browsing the local art galleries and sipping frozen lattes. She made several beach trips with old friends, and ate lots of grilled vegetables with her parents picked fresh from their backyard.
She didn’t think about Zack or Columbus until the day of her return flight. Thinking of him, she realized she should bring a gift. With no time to go shopping, she picked him lychees from one of their trees, and spun him a tongue-in-cheek story of how she had watched and waited for them to be ready to pick on the day of her departure.
He made them dinner that night, a cheesy macaroni that had her going back for seconds and thirds. Afterwards, they made lychee martinis. She picked one of the fruits out of the bottom of the glass and held it out to Zack. He wrapped his mouth around her fingers. She felt his tongue lap at the delicately fleshed fruit.
She smiled at him. “I missed you.”
He searched her face. “Did you really?”
She lightly hit his shoulder. “Of course I did.”
“You look well-rested and relaxed.”
“I spent a lot of time outdoors.”
“I can tell. You look great.” He rubbed the insides of her thighs.
Lucy squeezed Zack close to her. “I feel a lot better. I was pretty burned out toward the end. But I think this year will be more manageable.”
It was Zack’s last year of residency, and he applied for various fellowships across the country. It was very much on his mind, where he would be living next. In March, he flew home for a friend’s wedding. When Lucy picked him up from the airport the following week, he told her he learned he’d gotten the fellowship in Arlington.
“That’s great. That was your first or second choice, right?” she said.
“Yeah, it was.”
“Let’s celebrate! Where do you want to go for dinner?”
They got dolmades and falafel pitas at The Happy Greek, and a flaming cheese, just for fun. Zack told her about the wedding, how he and his friend had met freshmen year at Wake Forest. He’d thought he didn’t know the woman his friend was marrying, but it turned out they had gone to the same preschool, and that their mothers had been close friends.
“Small world,” Lucy said.
Zack told her about all the old friends and family he had seen, and what they were up to now. He talked about the future and engagements and marriage. One of his friends had just had his first child. Another of his friends was, after less than a year of marriage, getting divorced. It was strange, how so many people their age were suddenly settling down. It was almost like peer pressure, wasn’t it? Too late, Lucy realized what the conversation was building towards.
Zack took a deep breath, and then gave a long spiel on their considering a future together. He said it had been on his mind for a while, but that he hadn’t been sure how to bring it up. He made a lot of good and persuasive points. He even had rebuttals to her potential objections.
“What you’re saying is all true,” Lucy said when Zack finished making his engagement (or even pre-engagement!) speech. “But I’m here for three more years, and have no idea where I’m going afterwards. That’s a minimum three-year long-distance relationship, and I don’t know if I could make a good-faith commitment to that.”
Zack urged her to think about it, so she did. She seriously thought about it. They were at that age, and he was a stabilizing influence. The security aspect was appealing, and Zack was, objectively speaking, ideal husband material. He was dependable and considerate. He was trustworthy and kind.
Lucy had grown up with a pragmatic mother who was all about balance in relationships, a harmony of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They took a weekend trip to Arlington, explored the city and nearby D.C. Part of her dispassionately observed how they interacted on the trip, how Zack would wake up early to get her coffee, how she would weather check him before he stepped out the door, how they navigated the traffic and parking, working as a team.
There were reasons to say yes. She cared about him, felt great affection for him. He was good for her, and from a position of pure self-interest, she should say yes. She and Zack continued to talk about it.
Then Zack said: “I love you.”
Lucy’s first reaction was: “Oh.”
They’d talked about love once, when discussing their past relationships. Zack was unsure if he’d ever felt it, even though he had been in several long-term relationships. Lucy said she’d felt it twice. He asked her how she would describe it, and she said it was a feeling, nothing more or less. It had nothing to do with whether the object of that love was deserving or worthy of it.
“Isn’t that infatuation or lust?”
“I guess it could overlap with that, but it’s not the same thing, at least not to me, especially when the feeling goes both ways.” She tried to think of an apt analogy. “It’s like experiencing an orgasm. You don’t know what you’re missing out on until you’ve experienced it. And once you have, it no longer seems optional.”
So when Zack said he loved her, she didn’t know if he was using her definition or something else. But on her end: “I don’t.”
Zack wanted to argue about this. For a while, she tried to listen and consider if there was truth to his words. But she kept remembering how when she had visited home, Zack had been the last person on her mind.
She eventually cut him off, telling him bluntly, “I’ve been in love before. I know what it feels like. This isn’t it.”
It didn’t feel good to see that she’d hurt him, and Lucy felt a sense of great loss as she struggled to think of what to say next. She wondered when this change had exactly happened. They had started out on the same page, hadn’t they? She was upfront. She had never led him on. They had something good, even if it wasn’t in the end what Zack wanted.
“So what was all of this, for you?” he finally asked.
“I always told you I wasn’t looking for anything long-term.”
“Right. You wanted something convenient. You saw me as something convenient.”
She resisted the urge to turn this into a fight. She chose her next words carefully. She took his hand. “I wanted us to take care of each other. Neither of us was originally from here, and we didn’t know many people. I thought you wanted that too.”
Zack moved to Arlington in August, and Lucy continued school in Columbus. They worked hard to stay on good terms. They had additional talks. They tried to reach a mutual understanding. She knew he was hurting when he left, but was hopeful they could in the long-term continue their friendship.
In all their talks, there was something Lucy wanted to explain, that she could never quite fully explain. It should have been so simple and obvious to explain.
There was one night, in the early months of their knowing each other, when Lucy was at their regular coffee shop. She was there to obstinately read for the next day’s class, and she’d sat on a wobbly chair, hunched over a tiny table, staring down at what should have been so easy to comprehend. She read the same paragraph over and over, wanting to read it, knowing that if she could just get started, she would be done in less than an hour, but she couldn’t process what was before her. She wasn’t anxious. She wasn’t sad. Yet she knew from past experience that this feeling would worsen, that the subsequent anxiety and sadness was something she wanted to avoid and needed to start mitigating now. She remembered telling herself that she just needed a distraction, some other thing to focus her attention on for a while.
So it meant something, something immeasurable, when Zack approached Lucy during one of the lowest moments of her life. He held out two pastries on a plate. The smile he gave her was sweet and uncomplicated.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Pick one,” he replied.
—photo Flickr/Valters Krontals