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Ex. 3. Follow-up. Analyse interpersonal communication in the communicative episodes described. Dwell on the communicative tensions and ways of balancing them.

Task 5. History of a Disturbance

Ex. 1. Identifying aspects of communication. Read the story and get ready to dwell on the main elements of the communicative episode described in the text.

History of a Disturbance

By S. Millhauser

You are angry, Elena. You are furious. You are desperately unhappy. Do you know you’re becoming bitter? – bitter as those little berries you bit into, remember? in the woods that time. You are frightened. You are resentful. My vow must have seemed to you extremely cruel, or insane. You are suspicious. You are tired. I’ve never seen you so tired. And of course: you are patient. You’re very patient, Elena. I can feel that patience of yours come rolling out at me from every ripple of your unforgiving hair, from your fierce wrists and tense blouse. It’s a harsh patience, an aggressive patience. It wants something, as all patience does. What it wants is an explanation, which you feel will free you in some way – if only from the grip of your ferocious waiting. But an explanation is just what’s not possible, not now and not ever. What I can give you is only this. Call it an explanation if you like. For me it’s a stammer – a shout in the dark.

Do things have beginnings, do you think? Or is a beginning only the first revelation of something that’s always been there, waiting to be found? I’m thinking of that little outing we took last summer, the one up to Sandy Point. I’d been working hard, maybe too hard, I had just finished that market-penetration study for Sherwood Merrick Associates, it was the right time to get away. You were humming in the kitchen. You were wearing those jeans I like, the ones with the left back pocket torn off, and the top of your bathing suit. I watched as you sliced a sandwich exactly in half. The sun struck your hands. Across your glowing fingers I could see the faint liquidity green cast by the little glass swan on the window-sill. It occurred to me that we rarely took these trips anymore, that we ought to do it more often.

Then we were off, you in that swooping straw hat with its touch of forties glamour, I in that floppy thing that makes me look like a demented explorer. An hour later there was the country store, with the one red gas pump in front, there was the turn. We passed the summer cottages in the pines. The little parking lot at the end of the road was only half full. Over the stone wall we looked down at the stretch of sand by the lake. We went down the rickety steps, I with the thermos and picnic basket, you with the blanket and towels. Other couples lay in the sun. Some kids were splashing in the water, which rippled from a passing speedboat that made the white barrels rise and fall. The tall lifeguard stand threw a short shadow. Across the lake was a pier, where some boys were fishing. You spread the blanket, took off your hat, shook out your hair. You sat down and began stroking your arm

with sunblock. I was sitting next to you, taking it all in, the brown-green water, the wet ropes between the white barrels, the gleam of the lotion on your arm. Everything was bright and clear, and I wondered when the last time was that I’d really looked at anything. Suddenly you stopped what you were doing. You glanced around at the beach, raised your face to the sky, and said, “What a wonderful day!” I turned and looked out at the water.

But I wasn’t looking at the water. I was thinking of what you had just said. It was a cry of contentment, a simple expression of delight, the sort of thing anyone might say, on such a day. But I had felt a little sharp burst of irritation. My irritation shocked me. But there it was. I’d been taking in the day, just like you, happy in all my senses. Then you said, “What a wonderful day!” and the day was less wonderful. The day – it’s really indecent to speak of these things! But it’s as if the day were composed of many separate and diverse presences – that bottle of soda tilted in the sand, that piece of blue-violet sky between the two dark pines, your green hand by the window – which suddenly were blurred together by your words. I felt that something vast and rich had been diminished somehow. I barely knew what you were talking about. I knew of course what you were talking about. But the words annoyed me. I wished you hadn’t spoken them. Something uncapturable in the day had been harmed by speech. All at once my irritation passed. The day, which had been banished, came streaming back. Spots of yellow-white sun trembled in brown tree-shadows on the lake-edge. A little girl shouted in the water. I touched your hand.

Was that the beginning? Was it the first sign of a disturbance that had been growing secretly? Two weeks later the Polinzanos had that barbecue. Ralph was in high spirits, flipping over the chicken breasts, pushing down tenderly on the steaks. Later, in the near-dark, we sat on the screened porch watching the fireflies. You were lying in the chaise. I was sitting in that creaky wicker armchair right next to you. We were alone on the porch. You turned slowly to me. I remember the lazy roll of your head, your cheek against the vinyl strips, your hair flattened on one side, your eyelids sleepy. You said, “Do you love me?” Your voice was flirtatious, easy – you weren’t asking me to put a doubt to rest. I smiled, opened my mouth to answer, and for some reason recalled the afternoon at Sandy Point. And again I felt that burst of irritation, as if words were interposing themselves between me and the summer night. I said nothing. The silence began to swell. I could feel it pressing against both of us, like some big rubbery thing. I saw your eyes, still sleepy, begin to grow alert with confusion. And as if I were waking from a trance, I pushed away that silence, I beat it down with a yes yes yes, of course of course. You put your hand on my arm. All was well.

All was not well. In bed I lay awake, thinking of my irritation, thinking of the silence, which had been, I now thought, not like some big swelling rubbery thing but like a piece of sharp metal caught in my throat. What was wrong with me? Did I love you? Of course I loved you. But to ask me just then, as I was taking in the night… Besides, what did the words mean?

Despite these warnings, I hadn’t yet understood. I knew something was wrong, a little wrong, but I thought I’d been working too hard, I needed to relax a little, or maybe – I tried to imagine it – maybe the trouble was with us, with our marriage, a marriage problem. I don’t know when I began to suspect it was more dangerous than that.

Not long after the Polinzanos’ barbecue I found myself at the supermarket, picking up a few things for the weekend. My work had gone well that day, pretty well. I wheeled my cart into the checkout line, set out my bags and boxes on the rubber belt, swiped my card. The girl worked her scanner and touch screen, and I watched with pleasure as the product names appeared sharply on the new LCD monitor facing me above her shoulder. I signed my slip and handed it to the girl. She smiled at me and said, “Have a good day.” Instantly my mood changed. This time it wasn’t irritation that seized me but a kind of nervousness. “You too,” I said, as I always do, and fled with my cart.

At dinner that evening I felt uneasy, as if I were concealing a secret. Once or twice I thought you were looking at me strangely. I studied the saltshaker, which looked pretty much the way it had always looked, but with, I thought, some slight change I couldn’t account for. In the middle of the night I woke suddenly and thought, Something is happening to me, things will never be the same. Then I felt, across the lower part of my stomach, a first faint ripple of fear.

I think it was at this period that my own talk began to upset me. The words I uttered seemed like false smiles I was displaying at a party I’d gone to against my will. Sometimes I would overhear myself in the act of speech, like a man who suddenly sees himself in a mirror. Then I grew afraid.

I began to speak less. At the office, where I’d established a long habit of friendliness, I stayed stubbornly at my desk, staring at my screen and limiting myself to the briefest of exchanges, which themselves were not difficult to replace with gestures – a nod, a wave, a smile, a shrug. It’s surprising how little you need to say, really. Besides, everyone knew I was killing myself over that report. At home I greeted you silently. I said almost nothing at dinner and immediately shut myself up in the study. You hated my silence. For it was a knife-blade aimed at your neck. You were the victim and I was the murderer.

I was still able to do some work, during the day, a little work, though I was also staring a lot at the screen. I had command of a precise and specialized vocabulary that I could summon more or less at will. But the doubt had arisen, corroding my belief. Groups of words began to disintegrate under my intense gaze. I was like a man losing his faith, with no priest to turn to.

I am a normal man, wouldn’t you say, intelligent and well educated, yes, with an aptitude for a certain kind of high-level work, but fundamentally normal, in temperament and disposition. I understood that what was happening to me was not within the range of the normal, and I felt, in addition to curiosity, an anger that this had come upon me, in the prime of life, like the onset of a fatal disease.

One night after you’d gone to bed I rose slowly in my study. I observed myself with surprise, though I knew perfectly well what was happening. Without moving my lips, I took a vow.

The next morning at breakfast I passed you a slip of paper. You glanced at it with disdain, then crumpled it in your fist. I remember the sound of the paper, which reminded me of fire. Your knuckles stuck up like stones.

When a monk takes a vow of silence, he does so in order to shut out the world and devote himself exclusively to things of the spirit. My vow of silence sought to renew the world, to make it appear before me in all its fullness. I knew that every element of the world – a cup, a tree, a day – was inexhaustible. Only the words that expressed it were vague or limited. Words harmed the world. they took something away from it and put themselves in its place.

Do you think it’s been easy for me? Do you? Do you think I don’t know how grotesque it must seem? A grown man, forty-three years old, in excellent health, happily married, successful enough in his line of work, who suddenly refuses to speak, who flees the sound of others speaking, shuns the sight of the written word, avoids his wife, leaves his job, in order to shut himself up in his room or take long solitary walks – the idea is clownish, disgusting. The man is mad, sick, damaged, in desperate need of a doctor, a lover, a vacation, anything. Stick him in a ward. Inject him with something. But then, think of the other side. Think of it! Think of the terrible life of words, the unstoppable roar of sound that comes rushing out of people’s mouths and seems to have no object except the evasion of silence.

And still you’re waiting, Elena – even now. Even now you’re waiting for the explanation, the apology, the words that will justify you and set you free. But underneath that waiting is another waiting: you are waiting for me to return to the old way. Isn’t it true? Listen, Elena. It’s much too late for that.

The New Yorker. 2007, March 5

1. What stage of relational development is the couple at?

2. Could they have foreseen the conflict and prevented it?

3. Trace the changes n the man’s behavior? Did they affect the interpersonal relations with his wife only?

Ex. 2. Discussion. Express your opinion about the following. Dwell on the role of verbal and nonverbal means in the communicative episode described. Which of them can be considered as the first signs of the approaching disaster?

Ex. 3. Follow-up. Describe the stages of relational development and explain whether this interpersonal conflict could have been managed.

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